50 Years of Upward Bound at Bowdoin

In 1965, Bowdoin College signed on to participate in a newly minted federal program, part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Launched by the Department of Education, Upward Bound was designed to give high school kids from low-income backgrounds a boost in getting into college.

In the almost half century since, 2,000 students have graduated from Bowdoin’s Upward Bound program. Between 85% and 90% of these alumni have gone on to college. All have come from Maine towns with underfunded schools and high rates of poverty, and most are the first in their family to attend university.

“We’re looking for students with the motivation to go to college and who have hurdles to getting to college that we can help with,” said Bridget Mullen, Bowdoin’s Upward Bound director. Mullen has worked with this program for more than 20 years. “They’re all here because we believe they can go to college and they say they want to go.”

Perhaps the most critical component of Upward Bound is its summer residential experience. Each July, about 100 high school sophomores, juniors and seniors travel to Bowdoin’s campus where they live in dorms, take classes and act like college students for six weeks. Living away from home in a collegiate environment can bolster a sense of independence and confidence. “We build the skills to persist,” Mullen said. “That’s the endgame: we want our students to not only go to college but to be successful and have the skills to finish.”

Upward Bound’s summer program not only offers classes in math, lab science, foreign language and writing taught by local high school teachers, but also provides SAT preparation, extracurricular courses, and workshops on college financial aid and scholarships. Each summer the program hires 15 college students to work as residential advisors and teacher assistants. More than half are Bowdoin students — others come from schools throughout the country.

Beyond this, Upward Bound staff provide follow-up services to participants in their hometowns throughout the academic year by monitoring grades, offering college advice, assisting with financial aid and providing tutoring when needed. The majority of participants enroll in the program for two or three years, coming back each summer to Bowdoin for the residential experience.

In Maine, four other campuses offer Upward Bound programs besides Bowdoin: University of Maine Farmington, University of Southern Maine, University of Maine Orono and University of Maine Presque Isle. Each school receives a renewable five-year federal grant to run their program. Bowdoin Upward Bound’s 2014-2015 budget is $444,224, which breaks down to just over $4,100 per student. In Bowdoin’s case, the College also contributes an additional $30,000 or so each year by discounting dorm room rates and providing benefits to Upward Bound staff.

That investment pays off. Graduates of Upward Bound are twice as likely than their low-income, first-generation peers to attend college. Once they are there, they are five times more likely to graduate by age 24.

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