Barry Mills: Bowdoin and Concerns About Higher Ed (Part I)

In the first of a planned series of observations about higher education issues in the news, President Barry Mills reflects on what colleges must do to make sure every student succeeds.

The temperature was zero the other day as I walked across the Bowdoin Quad. For anyone from Florida or Southern California thinking of applying to Bowdoin, I assure you that zero is an unusual temperature for this part of coastal Maine (OK, maybe not all that unusual for January). I had just returned to campus from Boston, and despite the cold, it felt great to be back at Bowdoin and to walk across the snow-covered quad. The natural beauty of our campus never gets old for me.

For now, we have all stepped back from the “fiscal cliff,” only to turn our national attention to the “debt ceiling” and all the rest as we start a new year. Even with so much attention devoted recently to politics, the nation’s economy, tax policy, and other financial matters, I couldn’t help but notice the many, many articles and commentaries at the end of the year about the cost of college, the impact of online education, the necessity for creating efficiencies and productivity gains in higher education, and the challenges that low-income students face when they arrive at high-powered colleges and universities. There is so much written on these subjects so often in so many different media outlets that one would think every possible point has been covered. Clearly, the demographic of those reading these articles is one deeply interested in such observations. The subtext of these articles is always that these places are too expensive, that they are not doing a good job, that they burden students unfairly with too much debt, and generally, that they are not facing up to the realities of higher education in the 21st century.

The programs we provide and the close attention we pay to these students produce results that speak for themselves in terms of student accomplishment on campus and the remarkable success our graduates see in “real life.”

It has occurred to me that I write and speak about these subjects so often (BDS readers and those who attend my campus talks know that I do) that people must be exhausted hearing more from me about all of this. Yet, to my amazement, every time one of these articles appears, I get a string of emails asking for my views and for an explanation of what is Bowdoin doing to address the particular issue. And so, “by popular demand,” I start the new year with a series of articles for the BDS that will, in some respects, cover subjects I have addressed in the past.

One of the most troubling articles I’ve seen was the recent piece in The New York Times discussing the realities facing low-income students who are admitted to prestigious colleges and universities, only to find themselves struggling academically, socially uncomfortable in the residential setting, and burdened by mounds of debt when they graduate. Lisa McElaney ’77, one of our former trustees, wrote a letter to the editor in response to the Times article. As always, Lisa has it right: it is our obligation to make Bowdoin affordable and accessible to all talented students, regardless of their family financial condition or background. For years, this College has created opportunities for students from Maine and across America that would never have been available to them without a Bowdoin education. At Bowdoin, we understand our commitment and have redoubled our efforts to create these opportunities for every student.

That said, we also recognize that students with huge potential who arrive at Bowdoin from less sophisticated high school settings need the support and mentoring of our faculty and community in order to succeed within our complex curriculum. And we recognize that our residential experience here in Brunswick, Maine can, in many respects, be foreign to students who have grown up in urban or even very rural communities. With such academic and social pressures, we have a special responsibility to support these students to success. As Lisa correctly points out, these students are talented. Even so, they must be supported academically and socially by mentors and adults who are sensitive and responsive to their issues.

We also understand our responsibility to ensure that Bowdoin is affordable for these young men and women and for their families. We shouldn’t kid ourselves: creating opportunity for students from diverse backgrounds is expensive. But we at Bowdoin have understood for years that these expenses are not luxuries, but rather necessities in order that generations of Bowdoin students get the most out of their college experience. Moreover, we must continue to work to provide financial aid resources so that our students do not graduate from Bowdoin with burdensome debt.

In 2008 Bowdoin eliminated the loan requirement from our financial aid packages. In concept, Bowdoin students should be graduating with no debt. In fact, due to the high cost of college and the lack of liquidity facing many families in these economic times, people are still borrowing to help with expenses not covered by financial aid packages. Even so, the amount of debt our students incur is much, much less than what the news media tells us is the reality for others.

We must reject out of hand any suggestion that Bowdoin isn’t providing adequate support and should therefore back away from its commitment to low-income students. This is simply not true. The programs we provide and the close attention we pay to these students produce results that speak for themselves in terms of student accomplishment on campus and the remarkable success our graduates see in “real life.” Bowdoin offers the best four years of a student’s life not only because of what happens during that short time in college, but also because of the opportunity we create for the remaining years ahead.

Best wishes to the Bowdoin Community for a very happy and healthy new year.

Barry Mills



  1. Mark Lesser says:

    The problem is not with students from low and high income families. The middle income families are the ones left hurting, the families that do not qualify for much if any financial aid but are paying a very high percentage of their incomes/assets towards college expenses. These are the families that are under the most stress in this economy because there is the expectation that all parents work(see “The Two Income Trap”). They have no safety net, yet are the most likely to have transparent finances (no obfuscating trusts and devious accounting). They suffer at Bowdoin because the formula used for financial aid is not linear and based on outdated criteria. A family making just enough not to qualify for financial aid will be paying a vastly larger percentage of income/assets towards college than a family earning/possessing twenty times as much. Likewise, a family making just under the criteria will be paying zero. This is a regressive system which punishes those in the beleaguered middle.

  2. David Webster '57 says:

    Jan. 7, 2013

    I applaud Pres. Mills defense of “high powered” and “prestigious” colleges,i.e. Bowdoin, support of “talented” students irrespective of theirs and their families financial means to afford them. I revel in and look forward to the letters I receive from Bowdoin students we have supported through scholarship funds we have created at Bowdoin describing what their Bowdoin education has meant to and done for them. Although I believe Colleges, like Foundations, should be distributing a minimum of 5% of their endowments to fund these scholarships, Bowdoin, like all these “prstigious” schools is exemplary in its support of needy students.

    But we must remember Bowdoin is in the small minority of “prestigious” and “high powered” schools with generous endowments that can accept “need blind” “talented” students. I worry more about the rank and file of students, many less “talented” or finacially able, who seek a college education which they and their parents often can not afford and their schools can not support. A high percentage become drop outs usually carrying a significant “non dischargable” student loan debt”.

    My question is do these “prestigious” and “high powered” schools of privilege like Bowdoin have a responsibility beyond their small campus setting of 1600 students, to advise, to lead, and to collaborate with the large majority of schools to address the national college “affordability” challenge for the Common Good? What is Bowdoin doing there? DZW

  3. Don Doele '59 says:

    I applaud Barry’s comments and have often heard him wax eloquent on the need for a diverse student body at Bowdoin. I have the privilege of working as a “mock interviewer” in the career center and have done so for some years now. I’ve worked with all the kids from the best schools both public and private across the nation and with a host of kids who started on the streets of Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and those from all over the world. Their stories are truly amazing.

    The young gal who began life in Pakistan, moved to the US with her parents as a teenager and recently sought and received a $10,000 grant to produce a student newspaper in Pakistan, at her middle shool, several blocks from where BinLaden was found. Her friend, who she co-founded the Moslem club with, who was born in Rwanda, fled with her family to Kenya at age four and emigrated to Portland at age eight who is graduating from Bowdoin this year. The Korean boy whose parents insisted that he go to an Ivy League school who chose Bowdoin and turored students in Seoul until he earned enough for his fisrt semester and came to Bowdoin.

    Regardless of their backgrounds everyone I see has a great srory to tell that differentiates them positively from their peers. The “Bowdoin experience” that Barry talks about is a true highlight of their lives.

    Keep it up Barry.


  4. Bruce J. Lynskey '77 says:

    David, I believe that the point that you raise near the end of your post will ultimately be addressed by the radical makeover of higher education, stimulated by the eventual widespread use of online courses and a subsequent substantial reduction in the price of a college degree. Being a high tech career insider, I have witnessed such transitions occur in plenty of other industries over the last 25 years. The market situation with higher education is ‘rich’ for such a reinvention: a totally unsustainable business model, the classic problem of higher cost vs. a progressively inferior output (product), the monopoly like grip on the market currently held by the top players, etc. If you watch this space carefully, as I do, market players are exploring this highly attractive niche. Dozens of the top institutions are playing with the technology. There is much to still figure out, but there are plenty of sharp minds focused on this. Due to the extreme market pressures on the space to be ‘re-invented’ in a more effective, affordable, flexible, and accessible model, once some of the key problems are adequately solved, the transition will happen with lightning speed.

  5. Jeff Simpson '86 says:

    Risk decoupling has distorted the education market. The cost of a college education has outpaced inflation for many years, principally due to student loans being made without lender risk. Many in higher education (and finance) view the increasing slice of the economic pie going to education as a good thing, but middle class parents and all students saddled with mountains of debts are less enthusiastic.

    The lack of risk vetting as a precondition for lending will continue to drive the super-inflationary cost increases of college education. Barring dramatic improvements in the economy, increasingly larger numbers default on student loans. The byzantine rules that apply to student loans prevent bankruptcy from wiping away these debts. Our society instead produces an ever-growing and increasingly discontented underclass of indentured servants or debt serfs – surely a cruel twist on what it means to be an undergraduate.

    A correction must occur. It can be gradual or it can be harsh. A gradual way out is to reintroduce the coupling of risk assessment and loan granting. If we do nothing, a natural correction will occur wherein applications will decrease because the prospect of years of poverty-inducing loan repayments will deter prospective students. The oft-overlooked consequence of doing nothing is that wealth will be transferred away from hard-working and talented people to those at the top of the educational and financial pyramids. This is not capitalism, this is The Great Enrichment.

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