Barry Mills on Defining Student Success

In his weekly column, President Barry Mills explains his views on how to define student success at Bowdoin.

I spoke last week to members of the Association of Bowdoin Friends, a group of neighbors and friends of the College who are committed to Bowdoin and who play a vital role here. The Bowdoin Friends seem to be everywhere—at athletics events, concerts, dance performances, and lectures. It is common for these folks to audit classes and to make significant contributions in our classrooms. Many serve as host families to students attending Bowdoin from foreign countries or from faraway places in U.S. They play an important part in our community, and we are very fortunate to have their interest and involvement.

My talk with the Friends is an annual event, and it is one that I truly enjoy. We gather in the evening in Main Lounge for coffee, dessert, and good conversation. I typically begin with some brief opening remarks and then open it up to questions on any topic. There’s no time limit. We just go on until it’s time to stop. This year, the son of one of our Bowdoin Friends, Paul Doolan, was visiting from Houston and asked an important question: How do we define success for a student at Bowdoin?

On the surface, this is a pretty straightforward question, but the answer has many layers.

Assessment is a hot topic in higher education these days, and Bowdoin is seriously involved in measuring all kinds of outcomes for our students. Of course, we look at the traditional measures of success like grade point averages and graduation rates. Strong grades reflect a measure of commitment to the academic program and a level of seriousness of mind. We celebrate students with the highest grade point averages at the annual Sarah and James Bowdoin Day exercise, and we take pride in our six-year graduation rate of 94%—a rate that is among the highest at any college or university in America. We are particularly proud of the fact that this impressive graduation rate holds true for students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

By the most important objective measures utilized today in higher education, Bowdoin students are highly successful. But anyone familiar with Bowdoin knows we expect considerably more from our students than strong grades and high rates of graduation. That’s why my answer at the Bowdoin Friends event focused on both academic performance and active engagement in the life of the College as the most important measures of success for Bowdoin students.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a relativist, nor is Bowdoin the college equivalent of Lake Wobegon. Grades matter, and objective measures of success are important to us and to those trying to make judgments about the quality of our students, whether they are graduate or professional schools, or employers. In fact, my view is that the most significant measure of success lies in student engagement in their academic work—engagement reflected in the independent studies and honors projects that our students perform in large numbers each year. It is this serious committed engagement with sophisticated academic, intellectual, and artistic projects that defines our most successful students. These are the students who are gaining the life lessons of rigorous and deep analysis—second- and third-level thinking—that will benefit them in life and in their work beyond Bowdoin.

But at Bowdoin, we also expect our most successful students to become involved in the life of the College. These are the students who are also engaged passionately in all that Bowdoin has to offer—in the studio, on the stage and playing field, with the newspaper, and on and on. This additional involvement is important because it creates a level of personal satisfaction and allows for life lessons that are essential to becoming a complete individual in our complex society. The great news is that nearly all of our students are successful in these endeavors. You can follow their success on the Bowdoin Web site and through the Bowdoin Daily Sun.

At the start of every academic year, members of the first-year class line up outside my office to sign the matriculation book and to see the signatures of the many impressive alumni who came before them. I shake hands with each and every student, and I remind them that Bowdoin is both a hard place to get into and a demanding place for success.

We recognize that students come to Bowdoin with different life experiences and different levels of academic and personal maturity. Our job is to establish standards and to enable our students to achieve to the very best of their ability; to recognize that success will ultimately be defined by how our students have used their time here to mature and learn.

Hyde wrote in The Offer of the College that college can be “the best four years of your life.” These are wonderful years, but they also represent a critical time because they set a course for life. My ambition for Bowdoin is that this historic College will continue to graduate students who have achieved at the highest academic levels, who have immersed themselves in all that Bowdoin has to offer, and who carry into life the values and seriousness of purpose nurtured here. That’s my definition of student success at Bowdoin.


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

Previous Bowdoin Daily Sun columns by President Barry Mills are available on the Bowdoin Web site.


  1. Jerald Cantor says:

    President Mills, I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. I am somewhat confused , however, by the reference to a 96% six year graduation rate. Two books which I recently read, one being The Hidden Ivies, put the figure at 89% which was significantly lower than peer schools. How is there such a disparity?

  2. Bowdoin Daily Sun says:

    From the BDS editor: Thank you for your comment and for pointing out this typographical error which we have now corrected. Bowdoin’s most recent six-year graduation rate (the class that entered in the fall of 2003) is 94%, which is still among the very highest at any college or university in America. Bowdoin’s most recent four-year average graduation rate over six years is 92%. Printed guidebooks are frequently out of date, or may be looking at a specific year, which could explain the number you cite.

  3. Barry Mills says:

    I was reminded by our Dean for Academic Affairs, Cristle Judd, of our statement of liberal education adopted by the faculty a few years ago. it is worth quoting and remembering:

    The success of a Bowdoin education is evident in the capacity of graduates to be informed and critically analytic readers of texts, evidence and conclusions; to be able to construct a logical argument; to communicate in writing and speaking with clarity and self-confidence; to understand the nature of artistic creation and the character of critical aesthetic judgment; to have the capacity to use quantitative and graphical presentations of information critically and confidently; and to access, evaluate, and make effective use of information resources in varied forms and media. These fundamental capacities serve as crucial supports for a commitment to active intellectual inquiry — to taking independent and multi-faceted approaches to solving complex problems; knowing how to ask important and fruitful questions and to pursue answers critically and effectively; sharing in the excitement of discovery and creativity; and being passionately committed to a subject of study. Graduates should thus have the ability to engage competing views critically, to make principled judgments that inform their practice, and to work effectively with others as informed citizens committed to constructing a just and sustainable world.

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