Barry Mills: Education Still Key to ‘The American Dream’

Is upward mobility a thing of the past in America? In his latest post, Barry Mills argues that “The American Dream” depends on access to quality education.

Last Wednesday (January 4), The New York Times published an article by Jason DeParle about the upward mobility of people in the United States relative to other countries. According to DeParle, researchers now believe that Americans have less mobility than citizens in most other advanced countries. Experts and foundations on both sides of the political spectrum debate the accuracy of this conclusion and the measures used to reach it, but on one point there is wide agreement. Access to quality education remains vital for those seeking “The American Dream” of upward mobility and success in life, regardless of how that success is defined. On this score, we can be very proud of Bowdoin’s contributions.

Over the past ten years, we have dramatically increased the number of low- and middle-income students at the College, as well as the amount of financial aid available to these students and their families. We have also eliminated the loan portion of our financial aid packages by replacing these loans with grants. Obviously, this is expensive for the College, but I believe it is central to our principles and our commitment of service to the common good.

When we talk about financial aid, many people assume we are focused only on the poorest families in America. While it is true that we support many low-income students and their families, the largest percentage of Bowdoin aid actually goes to the middle class. Our College has always been a place where young people from middle class families have the opportunity to study, learn, and grow, and it is essential that we continue to provide this opportunity. Unfortunately, even with generous financial aid, it is an increasing challenge for these middle class families to send their children to Bowdoin.

As I have written and discussed frequently over the past ten years, it is difficult to reduce the cost of Bowdoin in meaningful ways or to moderate our increased costs without affecting the quality of the education we provide and the competitiveness of our College. We do think carefully about any new endeavors, measuring value relative to cost, and we have been successful in moderating costs to some extent. We continually evaluate our aid packages and we make improvements when we can—converting loans to grants is an example of our ongoing efforts. But we also have to acknowledge that in many cases, these efforts are not enough. Many families, especially those in the middle class, are still forced to borrow money for college.

There are good arguments that some debt connected to one’s college education is not entirely a bad outcome, but we have learned in the past decade that too much debt encumbers the opportunity of our best to succeed. All things being equal, I continue to believe we should strive to allow students to graduate from Bowdoin without debt that limits their choice of career or level of post-graduate study.

Access, affordability, and the cost of education are among the most vexing issues of our time, but they are issues we must address. Regardless of how one defines or measures upward mobility, our nation and our society will continue to advance only if we are an educated and informed people dedicated to making life better for ourselves, our children, and our communities.


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 here or on the Bowdoin website.

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