Barry Mills on “No-loans”

In the first of what will be a weekly commentary, President Barry Mills writes about Bowdoin’s “no-loans” policy and why maintaining access remains a top priority at Bowdoin.

This is the first of my postings on the Bowdoin Daily Sun. I expect to write weekly on some subject important to the College or interesting to me, and I invite your comments and thoughts. Although it has been my practice to respond directly to those who contact me, I expect the volume of correspondence to increase as a result of these posts. While I cannot promise a dialogue, we will certainly review your comments and I especially welcome ideas for topics I can address and improvements we can make to the Bowdoin Daily Sun. This is a work in progress, and reader suggestions can help us a great deal.

There has been a lot of publicity recently about the “no-loan” component of financial aid. Williams and Dartmouth have announced that they are reverting to traditional financial aid policies that will require some students on financial aid to borrow. These modifications are obviously the result of the current economic environment and the endowment losses experienced by many during the past year. In a responsible manner, all colleges and universities are looking to reset their expenses to their resources, consistent with their core principles.

At Bowdoin we adopted a “no-loan” financial aid policy just over two years ago, and at the time, we were among the colleges with the smallest endowment to do so. Obviously, the moves by Dartmouth and Williams have gotten my attention. While I have no Bowdoin announcement to make on the issue, it is certainly fair to say that we are constantly reevaluating our programs and policies during these tough economic times. But this “no-loan” program is a concept we should make every effort to maintain because it is good policy and because it makes Bowdoin competitive for the most talented “middle class” students.

At Bowdoin, we teach the need to examine the facts, and on this particular issue, there are several important facts to consider.

The “no-loan” policy at Bowdoin was not generally focused on students and families with the highest need. Many of these students had not been required to take out loans even before our “no-loan” policy went into effect. Nor was the “no-loans” policy ever a prohibition on borrowing.

At Bowdoin, the “no-loan” initiative was designed to help middle class families making between $60,000 and $150,000. These are the families who may be most affected by the recession, who might view Bowdoin as beyond their economic means, and who we frequently support with financial aid. Instead of requiring a loan of roughly $5,000 a year as part of the aid package, Bowdoin simply increased the grant portion of the aid package by roughly that amount. That doesn’t mean people stopped borrowing. In fact, nearly 40% of these folks continue to borrow under federally supported loan programs to cover the parent contribution and other college expenses.

In my view, there is too much focus on whether loans are a good or bad thing for students, with some arguing that students will be more invested in their education if they have debt.  Our initiative was never a value judgment on loans (although we certainly did hope to reduce the impact of student debt on job opportunities after college). Rather, it has been a way for us to make Bowdoin more accessible and competitive for qualified students by increasing the grant portion of their aid.

We all know that the cost of college is very high, and families are justifiably looking at their total package and a variety of financing opportunities. In many cases, loans are very much on the table for these families regardless of our policies on financial aid.

The question for us given these economic times is how we take whatever steps are necessary to preserve access to Bowdoin for qualified students regardless of their financial means. This is the essence of our commitment to the common good and should be among our most important priorities.

In the coming weeks, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at


  1. This is a great little publication!! I so much enjoyed reading it this morning.

  2. Jack Reed '64 says:

    This is not directly related to the “no loans issue” My wife and I we at Bowdoin last weekend and were disappointed to see nothing going on in the chapel. No services of any sort?

    while an undergraduate, I enjoyed the Sunday chapel services and got a lot out of the visiting ministers and their messages. Have these services been eliminated?

    Jack Reed

  3. Tracy Burlock says:

    Very well said, Barry. Looking forward to your next post!

  4. Paul Hastings says:

    I agree with President Mills in his assertion that the debate should not center on the morality of loans per se, but rather on accessibility. However, since loans are at issue here and different approaches are certainly being discussed, one approach would be to have a ceiling placed on the total loan amount. A middle way, of sorts.

    The issue of whether students are more invested in their education if they have debt needs more scientific study.

  5. Disillusioned Bowdoin Kid says:

    Very nicely said, President Mills.

    Why don’t we talk a little more about how you have substituted the importance of education with the importance of having cushy dorms and state of the arts facilities as ways to attract students to Bowdoin. The cost of tuition in the US is mainly soaring because places like Bowdoin want to be what you call “competitive”. Since there are only few tangible ways for us to show that our academics are better than the academics at any other private school, we engage in providing services that are more comparable to the ones provided at a 5-star hotel and keep our campus nicely manicured, spending a fortune on marketing expenses.

    If this is the value of education, our society has its priorities wrong… And while it is not Bowdoin’s fault (as we all know we are only a small player in the marketization of education in this country), we need to make sure we are not blindly engaged in trying to get the best students away from our “competitors”. Educating the people of this country is a public good and competing for the best students does not fulfill the role of providing such a good. This is not beneficial for the future of this country and discussion of no-loan policies (which allow us to price discriminate, as every economist would tell you) seems slightly hypocritical.

    A disillusioned member of the senior class.

  6. Mr. Reed,
    Speaking as a member of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, there are services held in the Chapel through the BCF (but not by the college) every Sunday night at 7 PM. We have visiting ministers and great InterVarsity staff that help us out with that.

  7. Dear Disillusioned,
    Your education goes far beyond your academics. Please re-read the offer of the college and then consider how the college is a facilitator for what you and others can bring to the table. If the college can create an environment where you can focus on those interactions which will expand the horizon of all, the college has done its job.

  8. Bill Clark '76 says:

    Barry, I am delighted to read of Bowdoin’s continued commitment to accessibility and your desire to maintain the “no loan” policy. That policy makes me so proud as an alumnus. I am curious how we are able to make this happen in light of our lower endowment? We must be running a tight ship!
    As for the comments of “Disillusioned” above, I admire your passion and priorities. No one wants Bowdoin to be a country club but we do need to keep up the facilities and also offer a variety of environments (like excellent arts facilities)for learning. It is a good thing to make colleges compete by offering financial aid. I do not see it as “price discrimination” since it is offered on a need basis. But is it not good to put pressure on prices so that as many students as possible can attend? Finally, don’t be disillusioned yet.Save that for middle age. Just kidding, of course!

  9. Ted French says:

    Dear Barry:

    I applaud the new Bowdoin Daily Sun and your plan to speak out in a weekly column on a subject of interest. I look forward to reading both regularly.

    As a response to your first column, however, I hope you will be a little more concerned with clarity in future columns. I don’t mean to pick, but the headline of a “Bowdoin No-Loan Policy,” while true, seems a little blurry to me. If I understand the policy correctly, Bowdoin is getting out of the loan business and no longer requires aid recipients to borrow roughly $5,000 from Bowdoin or elsewhere as the price of admission to a financial aid package. Instead the college will increase outright grants by an equivalent amount. It might also be nice to know specifically why you believe the policy is a good one. Inferentially, I’m assuming the main reason is that increasing grants will lessen the financial burdens of families and the later obligations of graduates and thereby make Bowdoin more competitive. But there may be more.

    With appreciation for your continued leadership. (Don’t you ever sleep?)

    Ted French ‘51

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