The Most Important Imperative for Bowdoin College

Building the financial aid endowment is critical to ensuring Bowdoin’s strength into the future. That was the message conveyed by President Barry Mills in his address to alumni Saturday at the annual Reunion Convocation in Watson Arena.

Good morning. Welcome back to Bowdoin. And to those of you “from away,” welcome back to Maine.

It’s really an honor for me to stand before you this morning as president of Bowdoin. I’ve said it many times at these events, but I have to restate that I am enormously proud—as an alumnus who reveres the history and traditions of this College—to have the opportunity to lead Bowdoin over the past decade. I also admit to being more than a little humbled by the responsibility I have to all of you who feel so deeply committed to this College and its future.

Again this year, Bowdoin has been the beneficiary of a striking level of generous support from alumni, parents, and friends; support that means a lot financially, but also represents a gratifying level of confidence in the College by people who matter a great deal and who know Bowdoin best—from alumni who appreciate first-hand the lasting benefits of a Bowdoin education, to friends who see this College as a beacon, to past and present parents who, in addition to meeting the significant costs of educating their daughters and sons here, step forward to do even more.

These particular reunion classes are quite special to me, as you are the first reunion classes I met ten years ago when I was about to become president of this College. It’s amazing how quickly these ten years have passed! And, given that I recently announced I will be here as president for at least another five years, I am pleased that we will share yet another reunion together.

In a few moments, you will hear about the impressive level of giving provided by the classes represented here today. This is your time to take well-deserved pride in all that you do for Bowdoin and, through Bowdoin, for higher education in America. And it is a time for us to thank you once again, wholeheartedly, for your vital support.

As you walk around campus on this gorgeous spring weekend in Maine, I hope you also have a sense of pride in your College.

As you walk around campus on this gorgeous spring weekend in Maine, I hope you also have a sense of pride in your College. Ours is among the most beautiful and historic college campuses in the world. And I am certain that as you stand in the middle of the Quad this weekend you will all remember what a special place this is and what it means to you.

Last weekend was the 206th Commencement at Bowdoin College. It was a glorious weekend with many important events and activities. Let me tell you about a couple of them. On Friday, we held a luncheon hosted by Don Kufe of the Class of 1966. Don’s son, Turner—a captain of the golf team and an honors student in biochemistry—graduated last week. The Kufe family hosted what we call the “Legacy Luncheon.” This is a lunch attended by graduating students and their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, all of whom also attended Bowdoin. It is an annual event, and the sense of pride and tradition in the room is palpable. I always tell the group that my one regret as president is that our boys won’t attend Bowdoin and won’t be able to share the experience with me.

Each of the graduates at this luncheon has had their own Bowdoin experience separate from that of their parents or family members. This is their College, and they have their own special traditions and bonds. But the bond of being a Bowdoin alum is important to those families, and is also important to our College.

As this luncheon is taking place, a simultaneous event celebrated something equally special. Established just a few years ago, this other gathering recognizes members of the graduating class who are the first in their families to go to college. I have a great affinity for this group because their story is, in many respects, my own. I came to Bowdoin as a first generation college student. My mom finished high school. My father quit school in the 10th grade. I always share my own story with these students and their families, and later, we talk about our common experience of coming to Bowdoin not fully prepared for what we would find here. This event is always emotional. Students recount their journeys through four years at Bowdoin, and their families express enormous pride in their children. These young men and women have been remarkably successful, and the collective pride is unmistakable. As we share our stories of Bowdoin and our family connections, there is always a lot of emotion and many tears. But as we say our goodbyes, each and every student knows that Bowdoin is their College too, and that it will be forever.

Everyone in this arena today recognizes that Bowdoin creates opportunity. We change lives.

Everyone in this arena today recognizes that Bowdoin creates opportunity. We change lives. We bring students from Maine and all across America to this community and we create the opportunity for them to learn in our residential liberal arts setting and from each other.

And so after ten years, my fundamental message about the College remains the same: Bowdoin is a place for education of the highest quality in the liberal arts tradition that must remain accessible to qualified students from all across America without regard to their financial means.

Let me take a moment to explain what this access and this opportunity actually costs, and to place it in a historical context.

When the Class of 1961 graduated from Bowdoin, the comprehensive fee was $2,050 a year—about $15,400 in today’s money. For the Class of 1986 at graduation, the annual fee was $13,800—or a bit over $28,000 today.

We announced a couple of weeks ago that for next year, our comprehensive fee will be $54,470. We can all debate whether this fee is sustainable, but the program provided by the College actually costs $86,560 per student, per year. And even if all the students at the College were full pay and we gave away no financial aid, it would still cost $72,000 per student, per year for Bowdoin to provide this education and this experience. Accordingly, each and every student at the College receives financial aid support directly or indirectly by the strength of our endowment.

It is clearly an expensive proposition to be among the best colleges and universities in America. Why is that? Where does all that money go? Well, there are many reasons for the cost. Some expense is due to facilities like this one, but the cost is really about people, program, and technology. And it is those people and that program that cement our position as a great college.

There are ways to reduce the expense of Bowdoin—but at what cost?

There are ways to reduce the expense of Bowdoin—but at what cost? We could have larger classes, fewer professors, and fewer course offerings, but that would not be the Bowdoin you admire. We could have fewer sports, less art, less theater, fewer adventures and leadership opportunities in the Outing Club, and fewer extracurricular activities, but that wouldn’t be the Bowdoin you admire. We could reduce the opportunities for our students to do research and to study directly with our faculty—but again—that wouldn’t be the Bowdoin you admire. We could shrink the activities of the McKeen Center for the Common Good and eliminate support for community service. That wouldn’t be the Bowdoin you admire either.

Sure, around the edges there are always ways to cut costs, and we have done so over the past couple of years, cutting literally millions of dollars from our expenses. But fundamentally, we have to face the fact that, given the number of people involved in providing a Bowdoin education and the technology associated with education today, it is powerfully expensive and it will continue to be powerfully expensive to do what we do.

Bowdoin, today, is relatively well-positioned to meet these challenges and to maintain and even enhance its position in the world of exceptional liberal arts colleges. Our endowment is strong and very respectable on an endowment-per-student basis, except in comparison to the wealthiest colleges in America. We have, just two years ago, completed an important capital campaign, raising nearly $300 million on a goal of $250 million with support from the entire community that was nothing short of inspiring. And we had some luck on our side too. We began in a very frothy economy and finished just as the world was beginning its economic slide. Timing is everything and luck comes to those who prepare well and work hard.

We have cut our costs significantly during these recent economic hard times. Our faculty and staff lived for nearly two years with salaries frozen at 2008 levels. We moderated new hires and put building projects on hold. These actions have resulted in millions of dollars of savings and made possible the smallest rate of increase in our comprehensive fee since the year I graduated from Bowdoin in 1972. In making these cuts, we have not, in any material respect, affected the experience for our students.

…the work of supporting Bowdoin is never done, especially given our ambition to enhance our program in order to ensure that we remain forever among the very best liberal arts college in America.

Of course, we are also the beneficiaries of an endowment that has performed at a rate far in excess of our expectations.

Our most recent capital campaign was focused primarily on financial aid and faculty positions, and its success has enabled us—in a challenging economy—to continue to hire talented faculty in important areas like creative writing, oceanography, and theater and dance.

But it will come as no surprise to you that the work of supporting Bowdoin is never done, especially given our ambition to enhance our program in order to ensure that we remain forever among the very best liberal arts college in America. And it should be no surprise, given this ambition, that we seek to create even more opportunity for the most talented students from around the United States and the world to come to Bowdoin to create better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities.

My message to you then, is the same message I have delivered for my entire tenure as president. The most important imperative for this College is building our financial aid endowment, for it is our ability to bring the best and most talented students to our campus from across America and around the world that will ensure the strength of our College forever.

…it is our ability to bring the best and most talented students to our campus from across America and around the world that will ensure the strength of our College forever.

Today Bowdoin’s financial aid endowment sits at approximately $395 million, providing about 61% of our annual financial aid support. We continue to provide financial aid to students on a “need blind” basis. The financial aid burden on the College increased significantly a couple of years ago when we replaced loans with grants as part of our financial aid package. This conversion of loans to grants recognized that students are graduating from college with simply too much debt, a burden that affects career choices and other decisions after college. The Wall Street Journal reported on May 7th that the Class of 2011 in America will graduate with the most debt of any class in history. We can be proud that by replacing loans with grants, Bowdoin is making it possible for many of our students to make choices about their careers—and even further education—without regard to a debt burden accumulated here. But given these economic times, we can expect to see more students who require aid, especially as our costs continue to rise. Simply put, our financial aid needs will increase, and we must have the capacity to support the demand.

Why support financial aid? For those of you motivated by self-interest, it is simply because Bowdoin cannot be the strong college we aspire to be without these resources. There is what I call an “inconvenient juxtaposition” between the cost of college and the expense of our operations. To remain a preeminent college, we must provide an extensive and rigorous program. If we are forced to cut our program because we can’t afford it, Bowdoin will find itself in a downward spiral and the world will notice. At that point, a Bowdoin degree loses the immense value that it holds today.

For those of you motivated not only by self-interest, but also by a commitment to the common good and social justice, financial aid is among the most important and effective ways to give back and create equal opportunity for all. There is simply no justification for calibrating educational opportunity based on whether someone is rich or poor. When we support a student at Bowdoin, we improve the lives of not only that individual student. We also improve the lives of their family and, very likely, others within their community.

The social amplification of our action to support low- and middle-class students has the power to change this country, far beyond a common sense expectation when one thinks of Bowdoin as a small college in Maine.

I invite you to think about Bowdoin’s decision to support Geoff Canda, George Mitchell, and so many other Bowdoin alumni who have heard the call of this College to serve the common good. And there are countless others—many of whom are in this arena today—who have changed their families, and society because Bowdoin provided support. The internal rate of return for our country— for our communities—is of the highest order, and the measure of personal gratification for us as a College and as individuals could not be any greater. The social amplification of our action to support low- and middle-class students has the power to change this country, far beyond a common sense expectation when one thinks of Bowdoin as a small college in Maine. When our alumni, parents, and friends support financial aid, they are not only supporting education, they are also supporting social justice and opportunity in America in the most profound ways. We, as a College, have proven this time and time again because we know that education opens the door to opportunity and to change. Without education, it is nearly impossible in the 21st century to improve one’s lot in life.

For the future of this College, we must maintain our education and residential life program in a responsible way and make decisions to admit superior students without fear that our financial aid budget will create hardship for the institution. It is a core value of Bowdoin that we remain need-blind in admissions, and we have similarly all become proud of our no-loan policy. It is essential that over the near term we further endow this College to support its financial aid costs so that the legacy of this generation is paying forward and ensuring forever the strength of Bowdoin and the social benefits we provide.

We all have for this College the expectation of an ambitious future. We all have aspirations for Bowdoin to be ranked among the best or perhaps the best liberal arts college in America. We must do all we can at this point in our history to ensure that we are the place that creates dramatic opportunity for all—the most meaningful and complete definition of the common good.

I have visited with many of you and with other alumni over these past ten years, and I am proud to report that our alumni community continues to display the energy and determination that are required to achieve all that we want and expect for Bowdoin.

Colleges and universities across the country yearn to have an alumni group as talented, as generous, and as enthusiastic as this one. Bowdoin creates and nurtures special relationships with its sons and daughters. We respect and value those relationships and look forward to building even stronger ties with each of you as we advance the mission of this wonderful College.

Karen and I are delighted to have you back on campus with us today, and we look forward to speaking with as many of you as we can this weekend, and to welcoming you again as many times in the future as you are able to return.

Now, enjoy the weekend! Take time to tour the campus, to visit with faculty and staff, and to share this time with your classmates, family, and friends.

As you do, I hope you’ll revel in some nostalgia for Bowdoin’s past, take pride in the Bowdoin of today, and recommit yourselves to our important work together to shape an even stronger Bowdoin of tomorrow.

Thank you.

1 comment to The Most Important Imperative for Bowdoin College

  • George Maling

    We could see from the statistics for the 5-year classes that the participation rate is pretty low. What is the plan to improve the situation?

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