Barry Mills: Thoughts for the New Year

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With students on break and the College shut down in a blizzard, Barry Mills takes a moment to reflect on the new year and the continuing challenges for Bowdoin.

As I write today at our kitchen table in Maine, it is snowing outside and incredibly cold. We already have about a foot of snow on the ground from recent storms that sits above a layer of ice laid down just before Christmas. And the temperature is hovering at just about zero degrees. “Maine: The Way Life Should Be!”

It is actually quite beautiful outside, even if one understands how important it is to respect nature by staying off the roads tonight. It can be an adventure to live here, and today is a vivid example.

Last weekend, I was taking my daily walk through the quad and had a wonderful Bowdoin moment in front of the chapel. A couple of families with little children were lacing up their skates for a turn on the man-made ice pond we build there each winter. It was a picture-perfect New England and Bowdoin experience.

I wish you all a very Happy New Year. Let’s hope for a healthy and prosperous 2014 filled with joy. Of course, every year brings its challenges to us all, so let’s also hope for a year of resilience and mutual cooperation toward common ends.

New Year’s Day is a beginning. At Bowdoin it was also an important deadline: the last day of the year to apply for admission to the Class of 2018. There has been a lot of press recently about the shortcomings of technology surrounding healthcare, and we at Bowdoin—and in higher education in general—can relate. For weeks now, we and college applicants everywhere have been dealing with technology issues associated with the Common Application—problems on their side, not ours. It’s been a nightmare for our admissions office as we work to process thousands of applications, and it has also added to the anxiety of high schools students trying to navigate the college admissions process. With all the attention on making college more accessible for students across America, one would hope and expect that the application process could be as simple and seamless as possible. Technology was supposed to streamline the process and, for the most part, it has. But this latest set of problems reminds us that technology isn’t perfect. The good news is that the students who are interested in Bowdoin are an industrious and persistent group. I’m confident that, at the end of the day, all the applications will get here.

As we think about the year ahead…it is quite likely that there will be continued focus and debate on the issues of income inequality, the cost of higher education, student debt, job preparation, and low graduation rates, particularly among students from low-income families.

As we think about the year ahead, especially in the context of the current political winds, it is quite likely that there will be continued focus and debate on the issues of income inequality, the cost of higher education, student debt, job preparation, and low graduation rates, particularly among students from low-income families. While our story is better than most, we are not insulated from these concerns, nor do we ignore them.

The focus on these issues is quite appropriate. Too many students in America are starting college and accumulating large amounts of debt, only to drop out before they earn a degree. And while college costs have moderated somewhat in recent years, they are still increasing at remarkable rates, and the burden falls most heavily on the poor and middle class.

The familiar argument is that colleges and universities are extravagant participants in an “arms race” that fuels these rapid increases. I have written and spoken about these issues often over the years, and I know that there are some who believe that Bowdoin suffers from these excesses. The reality is more complex, and we work hard to maintain access and opportunity as we also strive to constantly strengthen the education and the experience we provide.

As we start this New Year, we can all be proud and confident in Bowdoin. We admit powerfully talented students from across America and the world. Nearly 46% of our students receive need-based aid from the College. About 15% of our students are from the lowest economic brackets in America, and about 13% are first-generation college students. Our students graduate with no debt or with manageable debt levels that are much lower than the national averages. And at 95%, our six-year graduation rates are among the highest in America. This is a rigorous place that constantly challenges these young minds, but our students love being in college, and they love Bowdoin.

At a time when our society is questioning what colleges teach and how they teach it—as we debate the value and efficacy of MOOCs, collaboration, and distance learning—we know at Bowdoin that our students LEARN from the education we provide. We know this because we work with them closely over four years and we see their growth during that time. What we teach is surely important, and students everywhere need to master a common core. Our students not only learn those core competencies, they also develop the quality of mind and judgment that makes them informed, engaged citizens.

And, they get JOBS.

So, as we start this new year at Bowdoin, we understand the challenges. We know that we must face up to the fact that the cost of the education and experience we deliver is too expensive for most in our country. We know that we have to redouble our efforts to raise the resources necessary to maintain access and to sustain this great College. And, we understand that we have to be thoughtful and responsible in allocating those resources not in competition with others but in ways that make good sense for Bowdoin. At the same time, we must stay ambitious and engaged in the increasingly complex worlds of the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts.

There’s nothing easy about this. It’s difficult and challenging for our entire community. But, it is also invigorating for us to tackle these important issues and to work even harder to become an even better college.

I wish you all a very Happy New Year.

Now, I am going to turn up the heat!

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In this column, 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. Ron Golz 1956 says:

    It would be an innovative move if Bowdoin reduced the cost to attend Bowdoin by 3%. I’m sure the difference could easily be made up with expense cuts and not alter the revenue vs expense equation. I think it is about time that colleges and universities start to operate as a business whose goal is to provide an education to its customers (students).

  2. Roger Waldron 1982 says:

    “We know that we have to redouble our efforts to raise the resources necessary to maintain access and sustain this great College.”

    No mention of examining operational/administration costs sends an unbalanced message–there are two sides to the balance sheet.

  3. Barry Woods 1983 says:

    The College rightly prides itself as leading its academic brethren in embracing new ideas and approaches even as it wrestles with common issues. As a parent of college age children, and a beneficiary of need-based financial aid so many years ago, I like to think I know a bit about the challenges parents now face in navigating the admissions process and assessing the “value” of higher education. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Must the costs come down? Most definitely- if we are to continue to prosper as a society and send the right message to aspiring students of all economic backgrounds. The word that I would like to see injected into the debate is “sustainability.” Whether it is embracing new technologies or social policies, we must consider the impact of our actions on the future and learn to live within our means. Colleges are not currently sustainable with the present tuition burden. The sooner any college solves this, and becomes a sustainable entity, the sooner our system rights itself from the steep decline it is experiencing in promoting education.

  4. Francisco Palmieri says:

    Having served on as a member of a university budget committee for two years earlier in life, I can tell you that controlling expenses is almost always the starting point in the budget exercise, as I am sure it is for Bowdoin. the challenge is where to pick and choose to make the investments that keep the college relevant and on the cutting/leading edge. From what I have seen so far at Bowdoin, there is a very purposeful and thoughtful approach to this challenge.

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