Barry Mills: In Defense of Higher Education


As political rhetoric zeroes in on higher education, Barry Mills calls for a more considered and thoughtful approach.

Over the past few years, we as a nation have lost confidence in many of our most important institutions, including our colleges and universities. A common criticism goes something like this: “Higher education in America is too expensive, too ‘politically correct,’ and not focused enough on outcomes and on training students for the right jobs.”

In this highly charged political season, I think it’s wise to take a step back and evaluate the reality of higher education in America. Rather than throwing our colleges and universities under the partisan bus, we should take pride in all that is being accomplished, and focus on improvements where improvements can be made.

Rather than throwing our colleges and universities under the partisan bus, we should take pride in all that is being accomplished, and focus on improvements where improvements can be made.

Highest on the list of concerns, quite appropriately, is the cost of higher education and the need to bend the cost curve. Our colleges and universities are criticized for limiting accessibility and catering to the so-called “1%” by raising tuition and fees while reducing financial aid. Meanwhile, students and families are concerned that the value of a college degree no longer justifies the debt they will incur to earn one.

Our colleges and universities are also under attack because of unemployed or underemployed graduates, majors and academic concentrations that don’t train graduates for specific jobs, and even the career choices students make for themselves once they earn their degrees.

And higher education will soon face renewed critical scrutiny for its admissions practices. Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will once again consider the divisive issue of affirmative action. Many critics of affirmative action see it as unfair social engineering or political correctness run amok, or at best, a well-intentioned practice that is no longer necessary in our society. Regardless of where one comes down on the issue, this looming debate will surely focus even more national angst on our colleges and universities.

So what do we make of all this? Eleven years ago, when I became a college president, I joined a sector that was justly considered the best in the entire world. Even today, most of the world sees American higher education as an enduring model of excellence that provides our country with a significant competitive advantage. At the same time, many Americans—including many of our important political leaders—are condemning our colleges and universities, questioning their value, and diminishing their effectiveness.

How we bend the cost curve on a macro basis will require imagination and a willingness to be innovative in an environment where innovation and change are slow and not always welcome.

Each of the issues I mention is complicated on a macro basis. It is a fact that the cost of higher education continues to go up in America (although at a much slower rate than in previous years), and it is also true that colleges and universities are increasingly challenged to mitigate the impact of these increases through financial aid. While the reasons for increased costs are clear to those of us who look at them every day, the explanations are difficult to convey quickly or in simple sound bites. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to tackle these rising costs and their impact on educational opportunity—we clearly must, and many colleges and universities are working hard to do so. But we must also focus on our national priorities as part of the solution. Numerous state governments are cutting funding for higher education in very significant ways. This is happening in far-off places like California and closer to home in New Hampshire and Maine. These states are faced with impossible choices as they seek to balance their budgets in these difficult financial times and in some cases feel compelled—given existing commitments that apparently give them little choice—to reduce their support for education.

In my view, there is no doubt that we must continue to provide quality education to our young people in order to prepare them for the future. For some, a four-year college experience will be rewarding in the broadest sense. For others, our community college systems and trade schools will provide great opportunities. All are important and deserve our support and respect. At the same time, we must continue to explore how we educate our young people in a way that is economical and effective, without burdening students and their families with crushing debt. How we bend the cost curve on a macro basis will require imagination and a willingness to be innovative in an environment where innovation and change are slow and not always welcome.

With regard to jobs and outcomes, my advice is that we all try to be more humble and restrained as we seek to draw distinctions between worthy and not-so-worthy life choices that people make for themselves. Recent reports in The New York Times and other media have highlighted criticism of Ivy League graduates for career choices that take them to Wall Street or into consulting. Meanwhile, our own Bowdoin Orient last week studied this issue for our Class of 2010 and commented favorably on the career decisions these students have made. We have become a very judgmental society that is too eager to diminish with a broad brush individual choice and one’s commitment to the common good based upon the actions of a few. Let’s take a step back and acknowledge that there is not and never has been a one-size-fits-all approach to education or careers.

We have become a very judgmental society that is too eager to diminish with a broad brush individual choice and one’s commitment to the common good based upon the actions of a few.

As for affirmative action, my own view is that this is a necessary practice that has opened the doors of educational opportunity to many who never dreamed of being able to attend college—folks representing part of “the 99%” in America who are looking to better their lives and the lives of their families. I will be writing more over the coming months on the importance of considering race and economic means in the admissions process.

Bringing all of this back to Bowdoin, it is important to be clear that what we do, we do exceptionally well. There may be opportunities to reduce the rate of cost increases into the future, but it is essential to consider the quality of the education and the experience we provide to our very qualified students. Over the near term, we have provided a significant amount of financial aid that supports and allows nearly all of our students to graduate without a heavy debt burden. We will continue to work hard to provide this support.

One day a few weeks ago, we asked fans of Bowdoin on Facebook to tell us “what makes Bowdoin Bowdoin?” The responses painted a picture of an institution of learning that is unique and prized by our students, alumni, parents, and friends. As I have often written, we could quickly reduce the cost of a Bowdoin education. It would mean larger class sizes, fewer faculty, fewer research opportunities, reduced athletic competition and dramatic changes to our coaching staffs, fewer clubs and fewer extracurricular experiences for our students. Simply, we would not be the Bowdoin that our students enjoy, our alumni love, and the world admires.

We should avoid the trap to conflate a Bowdoin education with education as a commodity. As a group of Bowdoin leaders and supporters today, we are the stewards of a remarkable institution that has long educated students in the liberal arts tradition and with a commitment to the common good. It is our responsibility to provide that opportunity well into the future for young men and women who have earned the right—through their hard work, ability, promise, and character—to join the ranks of the Polar Bears. We have a continuing responsibility to educate “leaders in all walks of life” and to stand strong in support of what we do here, even in the face of a growing conventional wisdom that attacks the college experience and questions the value of our form of education.

Our college will continue to innovate, as it has since the doors of Massachusetts Hall opened more than two centuries ago. And we will continue to consider what it means to be educated in the liberal arts tradition in a rapidly changing technological and computational world. As others deride American higher education, it is our responsibility to stand up and support Bowdoin with confidence as an institution and a form of education that will continue to stand the test of time.


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.


  1. Dick Michelson '58 says:

    A discussion by Barry Mills on the dimensions and (important) roles that diversity plays in a Bowdoin education could be enlightening.

  2. Michael Owens says:

    Cheers to Barry’s comments. My daughter Golden is a 1st yr. student at Bowdoin & albeit i will never cotton to that sucking sound from my bank account each month I am confident her Bowdoin education is worth every penny.
    Michael Owens ’73,E’05,P’15

  3. More liberal orthodoxy from an academic.

    It happens that the ” common criticism” to which Dr. Mills refers in his first paragraph is all TRUE.

  4. David Fish says:

    I love Bowdoin. Sadly the cost of attending elite private colleges (public too) continues to rise at pace that exceeds inflation. The price tag for the privilege of a polar bear diploma for a child born today will be between $450K and $500K. If a parent chooses to pay for such an education they will need to save $1500 a month. Is it worth it? For most grads the answer is yes. Our liberal arts education is hard to put dollar amount on and I have an easy time “defending” the great cost students and families bear. But the escalating costs that have been out of step with stagnant wages are pricing more and more kids out the very education we hold so dear. Is this for the ‘common good?’ Continued tuition hikes at elite schools contribute to our nations widening wealth gap and further cements the lack of economic mobility in our society. Instead of “defending” higher education perhaps the college could lead the way in controlling tuition costs and attracting and supporting a more diverse student body.

  5. This past fall, I completed my student teaching in Mathematics at Booker T. Washington High School, Atlanta, GA where 99% of my students were African-Amercan and economically disadvantaged. It was there and through the eyes of my students, that I truly understood that separate is very far from being equal. At the same time, I was impressed beyond measure at the tenacity of the students and their teachers. In a net, this experience is my wake up call, my catalyst for wanting to do more so that other African-American students can have the opportunity for a quality education like my son. Therefore, I agree with and applaud President Mills’ position on affirmative action and I think many others would as well if they took the time to visit and/or volunteer in inner city schools throughout America.

  6. I think the issues of college expenses raised in “In Defense of Education” merit further discussion. I understand the reasons for cost increases are difficult to explain quickly and simply. I also think many people would appreciate a more detailed discussion of this issue.

    I realize President Mills is not trying to avoid answering the question. But, I believe it would be a real service to engage in a more in-depth discussion of the issues. Previous attempts (e.g., in Atlantic Monthly) have over simplified the problem – attributing it to single issues such as rising infrastructure costs or faculty salaries. These simplistic answers only serve to fuel misunderstandings, and further criticism of higher education.

    While there is no perfect way to provide an easily understandable explanation, I do believe it is possible. For instance, such it would be illustrative to graphically illustrate increases in the primary factors affecting Bowdoin’s costs at selected points in time (e.g., 1950, 1970, 1990, 2010).

    For the most part these factors are best represented in numerical rather than monetary terms (e.g., number of departments, number of courses offered, number of laboratories, number of clubs and team sports, number of buildings, total square footage of facilities devoted to athletics, academics, and arts). Others factors are clearly driven by inflationary pressures (e.g., financial aid for students, healthcare costs for faculty and staff, insurance and energy costs) and should be expressed in monetary terms. A few graphs and tables would illustrate the major factors driving increased education costs. This would provide the basis for a more informed discussion of the costs of college. For instance, in order to meet the needs of the 21st century Bowdoin now offers many more learning opportunities, compared to the Bowdoin of 1950 or 1970, necessitating more course offerings, more faculty and a larger infrastructure.


  1. […] president of my alma mater, Barry Mills, recently made his own contribution to this national discussion.  I found his comments […]

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