Barry Mills on ‘Going Retail’

In his weekly column, President Barry Mills explains why talking to admitted students about Bowdoin is one of his most important responsibilities.

This has been a very busy week at Bowdoin. We have moved from the “buying” side of the admissions process to the “selling” side, as we now work to convince the students we admitted a few weeks ago to sign up for Bowdoin in the fall. These fantastic students have until May 1 to tell us their plans. And to add to the uncertainty, many of these admitted students wait until 11:59 p.m. on April 30 to let us know. I guess that’s only fair, given the process they have endured over the past year applying to college.

We seek a class of approximately 485 first-year students. After early decision and taking account of students admitted last year who deferred for a year, we have about 280 remaining spots in the class. We admitted close to 900 students for these remaining spots, and as of this Thursday night, we’ve only heard from about 100 of them. That’s actually normal, but it leads to a lot of anxiety in the admissions office because we never know whether too many or too few admitted students will sign on the dotted line. We ease the uncertainty with our own “April Madness” pool predicting how many students will have signed up by May 1 (my prediction is 487). Regardless of what happens, we aren’t really worried.

I have spent the last week talking about the College at all kinds of events we hold for our admitted students. Last weekend I met with 100 low-income kids who were on campus. I always ask, “Why wouldn’t you come to Bowdoin—what is your one hesitation.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first and most important issue for these students is the cost. Fortunately, because of the generosity of so many connected to Bowdoin, we have the financial aid resources to assist these students. Even so, it is difficult for them and their families to come to grips with our costs and the complexity of financial aid. We work hard to help them understand the opportunity, and we know many will accept our offers.

Monday was Patriot’s Day in Maine and Massachusetts, and we had many New Englanders and folks from away on campus. I spoke with a lot of students and there were the typical questions: How are we different from Williams? Is our language program as strong as Middlebury’s? Should I choose the small class opportunity of Bowdoin over the prestige of Harvard? These kids have great choices and it is very difficult, from where they sit, to figure out the differences between the places. It was gratifying to see so many students, faculty, coaches, and staff participate all day in events designed to answer questions and talk with students candidly about Bowdoin and the opportunities available on our campus.

On Tuesday night I was back home in New York City speaking to 35 admitted students and their parents. New York is the epicenter of the college admissions competition. The anxiety of the students, parents, and college counselors hits ten on the Richter Scale. Prestige is important to many of these families and Bowdoin’s prominence satisfies most of them. The biggest issue for many of these urban students is our location in Maine. I assure them that Maine is a glorious place to go to school and only a 55 minute jet ride back to the city. I remind them that they may spend their entire remaining lives in New York and it is worthwhile to spend four years in a very different environment.

I tell these students that we want them all to come to Bowdoin, but also mention two exceptions: If you want to be anonymous in college, Bowdoin is not the place for you. Ours is an intense community and our faculty, staff, and students know each other very well. And for students who need the buzz of a big city—New York, for example—to survive, they shouldn’t delude themselves that four years in Brunswick is for them. Otherwise, we want all these admitted students at Bowdoin (or maybe only 485 of them).

So, over the next few days we will continue to talk with these prospective students. Some may ask why a college president is talking “retail” with these young men and women about their college choices. For me, Bowdoin is about the quality of the people here. That is why I am often involved in recruiting faculty to our campus. And each and every student makes a difference, given our size. That’s why I am convinced that among the many jobs the president of Bowdoin must perform, the retail experience of selling the College to these fantastic students is among the most important. I am confident we will report back that we have admitted the most impressive class in Bowdoin’s history. We always say that, but knowing the quality of the students I am speaking with, I believe we will be able to say with conviction that we have admitted powerfully smart and talented students with the sense and sensibility to succeed at Bowdoin.

Now, back to the phones.

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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 mills@bowdoin.edu

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

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