A Commitment to Access

by Selby Frame

Bowdoin's announcement that it will eliminate student loans has sent ripples through the Bowdoin community, even as students and faculty settled back into the routine of the new semester.

"The general consensus on campus is that everyone is pretty happy about it," said Benjamin Roberts-Pierel '10, who came back from winter break to learn that his college debt would be thousands of dollars lighter.

"My family has large financial commitments at the moment, and I was working with financial aid before break on re-evaluating my financial aid status to get more grant money. Needless to say, this is very nice. In the next couple of years, it will erase the burden of what would have been quite a large amount of debt getting out of college."

Student Aid Director Stephen Joyce said his office has been flooded by responses from students "who are just ecstatic with the fact that their loan obligation is going to be reduced significantly.

"This is the strongest statement that the College and the president can make regarding our commitment to access for low- and middle-income families," he said. "We want our students to leave without the shackles of debt that might otherwise interfere with their passion and their calling."

To date, Bowdoin is one of only a handful of colleges with endowments of less than $1 billion to eliminate loans for both new first-year and current students who receive financial aid. The move was made, in part, to ensure that the College will continue its legacy as one of the most economically diverse liberal arts colleges in America. Currently, 40 percent of the College's students receive need-based financial aid.

Bowdoin's generous financial aid offer was the deciding factor for senior Michel Bamani '08. Although he was at the top of his class at Portland High School, he said college would have been "pretty darnn near impossible" without the aid package he received at Bowdoin that, even under the 'old' system, will pay for all but about seven percent of total costs.

"It came down to what kind of school will give me the most financial aid," said the Russwurm Scholar, who was born and raised in the Republic of Congo and only emigrated to the U.S. in 2000.

Feedback on the Initiative

The announcement of the move from loans to grants generated lots of mail.

So pleased to see Bowdoin act so quickly to be a leader of this fundamental correction in access to the best education in the world...
—Nancy Chaffetz P'08, P'11

I'm thrilled that the College has taken this step - it is one that we will work hard to aspire to in our world and it will certainly make the difference in the lives of generations of future Bowdoin students.
—Ben Snyder '80, P'11,
Head of Upper School, Noble and Greenough School

I have never been prouder to be a Bowdoin graduate than I am today, on hearing this news.
—Nathaniel Harrison '68

My God, as if my chronic nostalgia for our wonderful College is not enough, news like this just reminds me of how profoundly thoughtful and progressive you all are...
—Sam Popkin '77, Ph.D.

After being accepted at Bowdoin and a host of other elite liberal arts colleges, Bamani said he was astonished to realize that his Bowdoin education would cost him less than he would pay to attend a public college and live at home.

"You see $40,000 and think, I may as well forget that school, but the more expensive a school is sometimes, the more money they give you. They want you to come to their school so long as you have proved that you can overcome hard work. I was very lucky to come here."

Students weren't the only ones feeling relief. Parents, such as Benjamin's mother Cathy Roberts, of Liberty, Maine, said her phone was ringing off the hook the day the no-loans policy was announced.

"People kept saying, 'Did you hear the news? Did you hear the news?' " she laughed, adding, "They know we're on financial aid, and that it'll make a really big difference.

"We have three kids, so starting with Ben, we'll have someone in school for the next ten years. The costs escalate; it's overwhelming. My husband and I are both self-employed in small businesses ... which makes it difficult to make a plan for college payments.

"I think it will make a big difference to Ben too," she said. "It's not worth going to a school like Bowdoin if you feel like you're trapped at the end. He had other options in terms of going to schools that cost less money, but he really wanted to go to Bowdoin, and we wanted to encourage him and make it work for him. We were banking on the fact we would get financial aid, not knowing how much."

Joyce pointed out that Bowdoin's formula for calculating need and family contribution would not be affected. "That part doesn't change," he said, "but the four or five thousand dollars of loans that students might have in their annual financial aid award will now turn into grants. That means that any borrowing a student does will now be by their own or their family's choice, rather than being dictated by the financial aid office."

Perhaps the best measure of the announcement's effect will be seen later, as students make decisions about the way they approach their academic program, or in the choices they make after graduation.

Robert-Pierel says the announcement "came at a really good time for me, as I'm moving to declare my major and think about what I want to do in my junior or senior year, or what I want to do after college.

"Most of the fields I'm interested in going into are not particularly huge monetary fields," he added. "I'm thinking of majoring in government and international relations, and I'm really interested in humanitarian work. I'll probably spend the summer working for a non-profit group."

Bamani, who is majoring in psychology and sociology, has already been accepted into several law schools and is trying to decide among them. "Again, to a different extent than as an undergraduate, money will come into consideration. It's always about money," he added, grinning.