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

 

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