No-Loan Policy Opens Doors — to Bowdoin and Beyond — Even Wider
Story posted April 17, 2008
Bowdoin Trustees, mindful of their commitment to make a Bowdoin education as accessible as possible, voted in January 2008 to eliminate student loans from the financial aid package and replace them with grants for all current and future students.
The move will offer relief to families who might find it difficult to repay more than $20,000 in debt, and it will allow students the freedom to pursue a career or postgraduate studies without that financial burden. Trustees made the decision in the face of several pressing questions: Is a Bowdoin education affordable to a diverse and deserving student body? And can the College offer sufficient assistance to one group without taking it away from another?
It is a delicate balancing act that institutions like Bowdoin struggle with more and more each year, particularly as the cost of attending a top-tier college or university approaches $50,000 annually.
President Barry Mills, whose own education at Bowdoin was possible because of the financial aid he received in the 1970s, has made it a goal of his administration to make Bowdoin more diverse and more accessible to low- and middle-income students.
Converting loans to grants will cost the College $2.7 million a year. Mills was adamant that none of the cost be taken from programs that support the neediest students.
"We sent a letter to the trustees saying we would condition our support on knowing that this would not reduce our commitment to lower-income kids," he said.
Mills also feels strongly that the academic program not be allowed to suffer. There would be a point of diminishing return if the College were to lower the quality of a Bowdoin education in order to make that education more accessible.
"What kinds of tradeoffs are we making?" Mills said. "We certainly had a conversation about that. We talked about approaching a 9-to-1 student-faculty ratio, and that seems to be a goal going forward. We didn't feel this move would impinge on the academic program."
"No doubt one has to keep everything we do in balance," Mills added.
When Benjamin Roberts-Pierel '10 heard the news about Bowdoin's decision, he was on the verge of two major developments in his young college career. He was zeroing in on a major, and he had begun negotiating for more financial assistance.
"Bowdoin has been a pretty big financial commitment for my family," said Roberts-Pierel of Liberty, Maine, the oldest of three children whose parents are both self-employed in small businesses. "This will erase the burden of what would have been quite a large amount of debt getting out of college. It's a big thing off my back."
Learn More about Bowdoin's No Loans Policy
Bowdoin's average current financial aid package approaches $30,000, including a typical grant of $24,000.
Roberts-Pierel, who plans to major in government and international relations, is most interested in humanitarian work and hopes to spend the summer working for a non-profit.
"Most of the fields I'm interested in going into after college are not particularly huge monetary fields," he said.
Bowdoin's news also was a relief for his mother, Cathy Roberts, who was concerned about not just the money, but about the way financial concerns can limit a young person's dreams. She did not want her son to choose a certain major in order to find a higher paying job after graduation.
"That is not why he went to Bowdoin," she said. "He went there to explore what he wanted to do. It's not worth going to a school like Bowdoin if you feel like you're trapped at the end."
It is impossible to overstate what financial aid has meant to Michel Bamani '08. He emigrated from Congo in 2000 at the age of 14, unable to speak English. In September, he will begin law school at Boston University.
"College was mandatory in my family, but the whole search was up to me," he said. "You see $40,000 and think, I may as well forget that school. My math teacher (at Portland High School) said look at Bowdoin, I think you'd be a great candidate."
"As much as my parents love me, they couldn't come close to making that much money at that time," he said. "I wouldn't even ask."
Bamani will graduate from Bowdoin with $14,000 in loans. "I'm not complaining," he said. "I will pay it back someday."
Bamani, who was accepted at several law schools, says his decision was based substantially on the amount of financial aid he received. Students like him in the future will have an easier time making those decisions without the burden of undergraduate debt.
Support for financial aid is an important goal of The Bowdoin Campaign, which ends in 2009. Bowdoin is committed to enrolling the most talented and promising students, regardless of their ability to pay for a Bowdoin education.
The College's new policy also comes too late to help Breanne Candland, who graduated from Bowdoin in 2001 and is now pursuing a master's degree from the Bangor Theological Seminary while she teaches social studies at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, Maine. She graduated with $16,000 in loans, and looks forward to making that last loan payment.
Candland considers herself fortunate that her parents are paying half her student loans, and her employer is paying two-thirds of the cost of graduate school. She said about half of the students who studied education with her at Bowdoin have left teaching.
"A lot of people couldn't afford to stay and teach," she said. "It's overwhelming for a lot of people."
"The Bowdoin plan (to eliminate debt) is such a gift," said Candland, who keeps her Bowdoin acceptance letter in a fire-proof safe. "It is in everybody's best interest to get students educated. It's a wonderful thing. I couldn't have gone to Bowdoin without financial aid."
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