Barry Mills: The Challenges of Affordability

 

President Barry Mills writes about the affordability of a Bowdoin education, how the College is working to help, and the best way to keep moving forward.

I was on campus for Nemo, the historic blizzard that struck Maine and the rest of New England a couple of weeks ago. A day after the storm, I promptly boarded a plane for the east coast of Florida, where I spent a week meeting Bowdoin alumni. The scene on campus during the storm was quite spectacular, and it was great fun to see our students out in the snow. But I have to admit it was also wonderful to get some sun and to meet with a large group of alumni and parents in a warmer environment.

It has been a very active time at Bowdoin over the past few weeks, and I suspect many of you have been following the discussion here and elsewhere about the campaign aimed at getting colleges and universities to divest their endowments from fossil fuels. As reported in the Orient, I’ve met with students several times to hear their thoughts on this subject and to offer my own. While I don’t agree with the movement, the educational moments that have grown out of these discussions have been valuable, and it’s not a bad thing to see a group of students passionately engaged in a social, political, and environmental issue.

I would like to continue this week on the subject of my last posting to the BDS. Whenever I write about Bowdoin’s financial situation, I receive correspondence from alumni and parents who describe the challenge facing middle class families as they work to afford our comprehensive fee. And when I write about our commitment to the poor in our country, folks remind me to also think about middle class families. I want to assure you that the issue of access and affordability is at the forefront of our consideration for all families, including the middle class.

…the issue of access and affordability is at the forefront of our consideration for all families, including the middle class.

Nearly 70% of the financial aid recipients at Bowdoin come from families with annual household incomes between $50,000 and $199,000. According to the national financial aid formulas, we are confident that Bowdoin is supporting the “full demonstrated need” of these families on our “no loan/all grant” basis, but it is quite evident nonetheless that some are stretching very hard to make a Bowdoin education work economically. Our average grant awards to these families are competitive with similar “elite” institutions, and while we no longer require students to take out loans as part of our financial packages and are meeting calculated need through grants and work, we know students are still borrowing moderate amounts of money in order to make a Bowdoin education possible. The debt totals for Bowdoin students are just over a third of the estimated $45,000 or more facing college graduates elsewhere that we read about in the popular press. Depending on your perspective, graduating from Bowdoin with debt around $16,000 should not be overly burdensome to our graduates, nor should it have significant impact on their career choices.

We have also moderated significantly the rate at which tuition and fees have increased since 2008. But the simple arithmetic of our finances requires that we balance revenues and expenses, and the expenses (without regard to financial aid) associated with the comprehensive program of a Bowdoin education are quite high. We could, of course, reduce those expenses, but the choices we would have to make would not be easy or welcomed by our students, faculty, staff, or families. We would, for sure, dilute the “special sauce” that makes Bowdoin beloved to so many. For some, technology offers the best way forward, but while technology is being embraced by the College and does offer some advantages in the long term, I doubt that it can change the cost curve in meaningful ways any time soon. The only way to cut expenses meaningfully and on a sustained basis is to eliminate program or to modify in significant ways the scope and substance of what we teach and the opportunities inherent in our residential life program. In other words, to lower our costs, we would have to change Bowdoin.

In many ways our situation is not so different from our nation—we have a very expensive program, and we must find the revenues and/or cut expenses in order to make that program available to families from across the country without regard to their ability to pay. We must continue to control costs and figure out how to increase revenue without placing an undue further burden on families that cannot absorb that burden. A tall task, but one that Bowdoin has met for generations and a challenge I believe we can continue to meet now and in the future.

The College has generally three sources of revenue: tuition and fees; annual contributions by alumni, parents, and friends; and income from our endowment. In order to meet these financial challenges, it is incumbent on us to continue to invest our endowment wisely and prudently, and also to garner the support for the College that will allow us to grow the endowment. If our community continues to support Bowdoin generously and enthusiastically, we will be able to continue the excellent program that makes us all love this College, and we will be able to provide more assistance to the students from poor and middle class families who ought be here. To my mind, given the excellence of Bowdoin and our commitment to this institution, we have no other choice but to ambitiously and steadfastly support our College.

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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 mills@bowdoin.edu

Previous Bowdoin Daily Sun columns by President Barry Mills are available here or on the Bowdoin website.

Comments

  1. I have not heard any discussion of better leveraging two significant costs in the equation, faculty and facilities. Rather than reduce expenses, how do you get more productivity from your current expenditures?

  2. IT SEEMS TO ME THAT BOWDOIN COULD STAND A 10% REDUCTION IN COSTS WITHOUT “HAVING TO CHANGE BOWDOIN”.
    IT HAPPENS EVERY YEAR IN BUSINESSES . IF YOU ARE IN A GROWTH MODE IT IS NOT WISE TO CUT EXPENSES, BUT RATHER
    TO CONTROLTHE GROWTH OF EXPENSES. FOR INSTITUTIONS THAT ARE NOT IN A GROWTH MODE CUTTING EXPENSES
    IS A SENSIBLE THING TO DO. WHEN THE GROWTH OF EXPENSES IS GREATER THAN THE GROWTH OF REVENUE IT IS NOT
    LONG BEFORE YOU GO OUT OF BUSINESS.

  3. John Curtiss '74 says:

    This is a timely topic and President Mills is right, it is very similar to the problems we are facing in our country as we speak. Cutting and controlling costs is difficult work and it is not popular. This is why the current and past federal administrations don’t really tackle it to any degree. Unfortunately, the “easier” route is increasing taxes, or in Bowdoin’s case, increasing tuition or alumni giving. I have 16 year-old twin girls. I would love for at least one of them to attend Bowdoin or a school like Bowdoin. When I attended Bowdoin my annual tuition, room & board + fees was, on average, about $3,000/year from 1970-1974. At the time, my father’s annual salary was about $24,000/year. So my Bowdoin education was roughly 1/8 of my dad’s salary. Today, Bowdoin’s total cost to attend is $56,000. If my math is correct, my salary today would have to be $448,000 to maintain the same relationship as our situation in 1970-1974 in order to send one of my daughters to Bowdoin. We were not wealthy in 1970 and scholarship and loans helped us afford Bowdoin. I am grateful. I am blessed to be in a position to afford Bowdoin today, but that doesn’t mean that Bowdoin shouldn’t be doing the hard work of being as efficient, productive and lean as it can be. Like many educational institutions, public and private, I only see rising costs. My fear is that there will come a breaking point where people like me say “I can no longer justify this extraordinary expense”. Sadly, I have uttered those very words in anticipation of my daughters’ college plans.

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