Barry Mills: Admissions and the Growing Demand for a Bowdoin Degree


Bowdoin received a record number of applications this year. Barry Mills has some thoughts on what’s driving this high demand for a Bowdoin degree.

This is both an exciting and difficult week to be president of Bowdoin. Exciting, because of the calls, messages, and letters I’m receiving from students (and parents) who are thrilled to learn they have been admitted to the Bowdoin Class of 2016. Difficult, because for every applicant admitted through regular decision, six have just received terribly disappointing news. More than 6,700 impressive and talented students applied this year for the 485 spots in our first-year class, but we were only able to admit 13.8% of them through regular decision. This is one of the disadvantages of being a small college—we have to turn away many qualified students, including those with strong family connections to Bowdoin. I understand how distressing this news can be, and I respect the feelings generated by our decisions. All I can say is that our admissions process values each and every applicant, and we work hard to make these tough calls in a manner that is thoughtful and fair.

Harvard, Yale, and the other Ivy League colleges are each reporting applications in excess of 30,000, and admit rates of six to eight percent. This obviously expands exponentially the disappointment I’m describing. It also means that literally tens of thousands of young men and women in America are upset that they haven’t been admitted to places with price tags of more than $50,000 a year. It’s the one time when we don’t hear complaints about the cost of higher education!

…literally tens of thousands of young men and women in America are upset that they haven’t been admitted to places with price tags of more than $50,000 a year.

It’s interesting to consider the factors driving this huge number of applicants when the cost of the education is so high. Some point to the Common Application, a tool that makes it relatively simple to apply to multiple colleges. I’m sure that’s had an impact, but many colleges—including Bowdoin—have used the Common App for years and the applications keep rising, even as the number of college-age students in America is in decline.

The growing demand might be explained, in part, by the analysis set forth by Charles Murray in his book “Coming Apart, The State of White America 1960-2010.” The findings in Murray’s book are controversial, but he quite clearly points to institutions like Bowdoin that have become central to a new and developing class in America that is distinct in wealth, privilege, and opportunity. When we look at our applicant pool, there is no question that we see the indicia of success that identifies this “educated class” described in Murray’s work. These students are enormously talented and seek to come to Bowdoin for good reasons related to our liberal arts tradition and residential life experience. Bowdoin and many of the colleges that attract similar students are clearly on the “flight path” for young people seeking a certain place in society. But we also know from experience that the common good resonates with Bowdoin applicants, and that our graduates leave with a strong commitment to serving others.

I do believe, however, that the growing demand for a spot at Bowdoin is more complicated than status or the common good. As Dean Meiklejohn revealed in a recent column, his favorite number among all the admissions statistics is 3,066—the number of high schools represented in our applicant pool. This is a number that has nearly doubled in the last decade. Certainly, some portion of our growth in applications is the attractiveness of Bowdoin to the affluent, but with 61% of our applications coming from public schools, we are also seen as a college that creates opportunity for students from across the economic landscape. Simply put, you don’t need to be wealthy to come to Bowdoin.

…some portion of our growth in applications is the attractiveness of Bowdoin to the affluent, but …you don’t need to be wealthy to come to Bowdoin.

We predict that approximately 46% of the class that enters next fall will receive need-based financial aid. Somewhere around 12-13% of the class will receive Pell Grants, funds only available to the poorest people in our country. Meanwhile, a significant portion of these new students will represent America’s middle class—students who will benefit the most from our conversion of loans to outright grants.

Charles Murray argues that our nation’s colleges can help to ameliorate the growing class divide in America by eliminating the SAT as a requirement for admission and by affirmatively seeking to admit students without the financial ability to afford a place like Bowdoin on their own. Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees voted to eliminate the SAT requirement back in 1969—long before it was fashionable to do so, and long before it was understood that there is a direct correlation between SAT scores and economic status. We have practiced need-blind admissions for many years, with our support for students through financial aid growing dramatically during the past decade. In the 1990s, about 35% our students received financial aid. Today, the percentage is in the mid-40s at a somewhat larger college.

Our goal at Bowdoin is to matriculate the most talented students regardless of their family status. We are certainly proud of our ability to attract the most talented students from families able to afford a Bowdoin education without our assistance (I do remind these families that since it costs about $75,000 a year to educate a student at Bowdoin, every student is supported by our endowment and by donations from alumni, parents, and friends). It is gratifying that these people recognize the value and quality of a Bowdoin degree. At the same time, as an institution committed to the common good, it is our responsibility to recognize that talent does not correlate with wealth, and we should seek to admit students from the poorest parts of America and from the middle class to ensure opportunity regardless of class or position. This commitment not only makes Bowdoin a better place. It makes our country a stronger and more just place for many years to come.

With March behind us and the May 1 deposit deadline looming, we now go from buyer to seller at the College. The students we have admitted have many choices, and it will be our job in April to convince 485 of these exceptional young women and men that Bowdoin is the very best choice they can make. It will help a great deal that our snows are long gone, making the campus unusually inviting for this time of year in Maine. But our real advantage—one that has stood the test of time—is that we know what we stand for, what we do well, and how a Bowdoin education can change lives. I have every confidence that we will assemble a terrific Class of 2016, and I look forward to introducing them to you in the weeks ahead.


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. Julie Sylvia says:

    “the common good resonates with Bowdoin applicants, and that our graduates leave with a strong commitment to serving others”

    Yes, this value is was what set Bowdoin apart from the other small, academically excellent colleges our son considered. It was clear to us that Bowdoin’s commitment to “the common good” is real, tangible and on-going. Also, importantly, we discerned that Bowdoin’s definition of “the common good” has not been set in stone, but rather evolves through an ongoing process involving thoughtful, clearly heart-felt and notably humble, community participation.

  2. Keith Halloran says:

    Well presented, researched, and reasoned … … it would seem that each new class brings even more promise than the last … and apparently Bowdoin’s ever-growing reputation shows it. Thank you Barry for sharing this … and good luck on May 1, 2012.

  3. David Morse says:

    Even “from the middle class” !

  4. Anita Yaffe says:

    My older son, Ian Yaffe, graduated from Bowdoin in 2009. He loved his four years at your great college. As a parent,I watched in grow and mature in ways unimaginable. He remains strongly connected to Bowdoin today and has made what I believe are many live long friends. Bowdoin is a very special place- a place you have to see and feel in order to understand what attaining the Common Good really means.

    I cannot thank you enough for accepting Ian to your fine institution.

    Anita Yaffe

  5. Blythe Snable Fortin says:

    It has been a heartbreaking year for me as a college admissions consultant. Many of the exceptional kids I counseled were denied admission to their first, second and third choices. Thanks, Barry, for your thoughtful and thought-provoking letter. I will share it with the Duke double legacy who vomited all night after receiving her rejection (yes, rejection … let’s not sugar coat it) letter.

  6. We are indebted to Bowdoin for their commmitment to the “commongood”. Once again, well said, researched and true!. Thank you Bowdoin. 2012

  7. Judy Weiniger says:

    Thank you Barry, for sharing this data… It is a heartbreaking process for many young people today, being judged in an arena among so many very qualified students. As a current parent, I feel extremely fortunate and blessed that my son is able to be a part of such a wonderful academic and thoughtful institution which gives all its students incredible opportunities as they grow into fine adults. I hope the 485 students choose to take advantage of this very special place and community.

  8. My parents sacrificed alot to send me to Bowdoin in the early 1970s. My years at Bowdoin were transformational. There is no price that you can put on the best four years of your life.

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