May 12, 2009

Dear Bowdoin Parents and Families,

The Bowdoin College Board of Trustees met this past weekend and approved a comprehensive fee of $50,900 for the 2009-2010 academic year. This represents a 4.8% increase over the current year and includes the following charges:

Tuition: $39,605
Room: $ 5,085
Board: $ 5,795
Student Activities: $ 415
TOTAL: $ 50,900

We understand that this increase places an additional burden on families at a time when our country and the entire world are suffering through a serious recession, the duration of which remains uncertain. We have looked carefully at our costs and have enacted a number of measures, which I describe below, to limit additional financial pressure on families, while preserving the immeasurable benefits of a Bowdoin education for our students.

While our fee is substantial, it is not out of line with that charged by our peers among the nation’s very best colleges and universities, nor does it cover the total cost of educating our students. Within a comparison group of eighteen top liberal arts colleges, the difference between the most and least expensive is just over $2,000 a year, and as the chart below illustrates, the total cost of educating each Bowdoin student is significantly more than we charge. The fact is that every Bowdoin student receives financial support from the College, largely provided through the strength of our endowment.

Budgeted cost per student

During this academic year, Bowdoin considered carefully adjustments we could make to take account of the difficult economic times. We were guided in our deliberations by four objectives:

  1. Bowdoin would, first and foremost, continue to support the academic program to ensure a superior education for our students;
  2. Bowdoin would continue to support need-based financial aid to ensure access for all students who have earned the right to attend, regardless of their ability to pay our fee;
  3. Bowdoin would continue to maintain the upkeep of our facilities because we do not want to pass on deferred maintenance to future generations; and
  4. Bowdoin would ask each of its constituencies to “share the pain” on a relatively equal basis in order to avoid layoffs that would strain our sense of community and diminish our students’ experience.

With these objectives in mind, the College has announced that we will freeze faculty and staff salaries at current levels for the next two academic years. For staff earning less than $40,000 per year, we are providing very modest salary increases. We believe we are the only college or university to have frozen salaries for the next two years. Our faculty and staff have embraced this position with resolve, understanding that the alternatives would have meant layoffs and caused us to have to modify the basic objectives set forth above.

We have announced that we will postpone indefinitely all new capital projects with the exception of our new health and wellness center currently nearing completion and scheduled to open near the start of the next academic year. We have also frozen operating budgets and cut discretionary spending. Finally, when a staff vacancy occurs, we are evaluating on a case-by-case basis whether we can reorganize existing staff to provide services efficiently without filling the position.

All of these actions are required because Bowdoin is not at all immune to the effects of the current economic downturn. Our endowment—which provides the support for nearly 30% of our expenses— will likely lose 20-25% of its value this fiscal year. These losses are actually positive on a relative basis given the overall markets and peer performance, but we all recognize that one cannot spend relative performance. Our budget models are predicated on the assumption that the endowment will not grow over the next two fiscal years. This is admittedly a conservative assumption, but we believe it is prudent for budget purposes given the uncertainty in the economy.

What will this mean for the students on campus over the next few years? Clearly, with our fee increase, we are asking our students and their families to share the burden of maintaining the outstanding quality of a Bowdoin education. The very positive news for our students is that their education and Bowdoin experience should not be adversely affected by the actions we are taking to maintain our financial equilibrium over the next few years.

The College continues to strengthen its academic program even during these difficult times. We continue to hire new faculty when a faculty member retires or leaves the College, thus preserving our impressive student-faculty ratio and the quality of student-faculty interaction so vital to a Bowdoin education. Moreover, given the success of our capital campaign, we have added four new faculty positions this year in economics, oceanography, anthropology, and creative writing.

We have not in any respect reduced the dining or facilities support for our students, nor has there been any reduction in staff support for residential life programs like athletics, counseling, and career services. Our libraries, museums, and performing arts facilities continue to operate at full strength, contributing in significant ways to the overall student experience.

Perhaps most importantly, we have maintained our steadfast commitment to financial aid for students who cannot afford a Bowdoin education without support from the College. Nearly 40% of our students receive Bowdoin financial aid, and the average grant is approximately $32,000 per year. Last year we announced that we were converting the entire loan portion of our aid packages to grants, thereby relieving students of the obligation to borrow to attend Bowdoin. We currently intend to maintain this “no loan” policy, which has received widespread support from everyone connected to the College. Our financial aid commitment is, in my view, the cornerstone of Bowdoin’s longstanding commitment to the common good.

Bowdoin is as strong today as any time in its 215-year history, and we are positioned extremely well to ride out the current period of economic distress. Nearly all of our buildings have been newly built or renovated in the past fifteen years. And, the silver lining for Bowdoin students during the next few years is that they will not have to live through the noise and disruption of the many campus construction sites endured by their most recent predecessors!

It is clear that the current economic climate requires all of us to be vigilant about preserving resources as we maintain our values and priorities. While I remain optimistic and have great confidence in the steps we are taking at Bowdoin, the unsettling reality is that none of us can predict with any certainty the ultimate length and depth of the current economic recession. That’s why we must remain nimble and realistic as we face the future. The steps we are taking at Bowdoin have been designed intentionally to provide a large measure of flexibility—nothing is irreversible, should conditions improve.

These are new times for education and for Bowdoin. Over the past twenty years colleges and universities across our country have accumulated unprecedented resources that have been used to enhance their campuses. Parents, students, and alumni had come to measure the success of their college or university by new buildings, new programs, and the “amenities” made available to the community. There seemed to be no end to the growth—and in some cases, extravagance—until the recent economic collapse brought with it a new reality and a new focus. Over the next period, our expectations will be reset and rebalanced. The challenge for all colleges and universities will be to prove their worth not on the basis of new buildings, but on the intrinsic worth and value of the education and experience they provide.

Everyone associated with Bowdoin takes immense pride in our community of students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and friends. We enjoy a long history as one of America’s truly great colleges—a history replete with difficult periods that have challenged our resolve and threatened our values. But through the collective good will and determination of our entire residential and extended community, Bowdoin has endured and prospered. I remain confident that, once again, the collective good will and resolve of our community will lead us through our current troubles.

Bowdoin understands what it is: a college committed to the liberal arts model of education in a setting that promotes close interaction by students and faculty; a residential model of education that values respect, creativity, and good nature; and a community of scholars and leaders devoted to the common good. All of these are emblematic of a Bowdoin education, and all of these are what we seek to preserve. Thank you for your continued enthusiasm for our College. I wish you all a wonderful summer.

Very truly yours,

Barry Mills