Letter to Parents May 2012

May 17, 2012

To Bowdoin Families,

On Saturday, the Bowdoin Board of Trustees adopted the 2012-13 budget, which includes an increase of 3% in our comprehensive fee. This means an increase of $1,658 in the fee (tuition, room, board and fees) to a total of $56,128.

Tuition $43,676
Room 5,620
Board1 6,390
Student Activities Fee 442
Total Estimated Comprehensive Fee $56,128
1Board reflects the standard full-board rate.

This represents the second lowest percentage increase in four decades at Bowdoin, and it is one of the smallest percentage increases among our peers. Even so, I recognize—as does everyone at the College—that any increase at all brings an added burden to families struggling to fund a Bowdoin education. We have worked hard to keep our increase at this historically low level, and I want to assure you that we do everything we can to hold down annual costs while striving to maintain and enhance the already immense value of a Bowdoin degree, the experience for our students, and the education we provide.

With increased costs also comes an increased financial commitment by the College to support financial aid. At the same meeting on Saturday, the Board approved a 7% increase in our financial aid budget, which amounts to an additional $2 million for need-based financial aid at Bowdoin. We will continue our practice of “need-blind” admissions next year, which allows us to admit the most talented students from across America without regard to their ability to pay our fees.

In 2008, we converted the loan portion of our financial aid packages to full grants, thereby eliminating the requirement that students borrow for College under our financial aid formulas. And while we understand, given our costs, that many students and their families will continue to borrow to pay for College, I can say with certainty that our students are not graduating with nearly the amount of debt that we have all been hearing about so often in the media these days. On top of that, because our students are so very well prepared and have access to a tremendously active Bowdoin alumni network, the vast majority of our graduates are leaving the College with exciting job opportunities or places in some of the country’s finest graduate and professional schools.

I understand that some among you will wonder why we are not supporting your child at the level you deem appropriate, since our commitment to financial aid is among the most generous at any college or university in the country. In this era of financial uncertainty, and given our cost, more and more people require assistance. Every year when I write this letter, I receive messages and correspondence from families who wish Bowdoin could help more. I understand and I am sympathetic. I also know we are supporting families in a manner and to an extent that is similar to what other excellent need-based aid colleges and universities provide. This does not ameliorate the difficulty some families face in paying our fees. At the very least, I hope you understand that we take very seriously our responsibility to support our students to the extent we are financially able to do so, and that we have increased that support quite significantly over the past number of years.

I am often asked how we can justify costs that are now approaching $60,000 a year. My answer, always, is to admit that what we do here is very expensive and not particularly efficient, because our model of education is based on the intimacy of our College. We are about small classes, faculty who know their students well, and a residential community that is vibrant and active. We are a community of many people who are here to serve this College and its students in an intense intellectual and residential environment of the highest quality.

We could easily and quickly lower our costs, but these adjustments would threaten that quality. We would have fewer faculty members and would offer fewer courses and majors. Our classes would be crowded; our laboratories less well equipped. There would be fewer opportunities to master the arts or to participate in a varsity sport. We could even decide not to care about the quality of our food! All of this, and more, could make Bowdoin less expensive, but it wouldn’t be Bowdoin.

Where does all this money go? The chart below provides a snapshot, with the vast majority of our expenses funding the people who make Bowdoin what it is. And while Bowdoin depends on the revenues generated by tuition and fees, it is important to note that every student—regardless of whether they receive financial aid or not—is subsidized by the College. Tuition and fees, less financial aid, represent only 52% of the total sources of funds received by the College annually. Most of the rest comes from Bowdoin’s endowment and from the generosity of alumni, parents, foundations, and friends who understand, appreciate, and support what we do here. Next year, we calculate that the actual cost of attendance per student will be nearly $91,000, which means the College provides a subsidy in excess of $34,000 to each and every student. I mention this only because it adds important context to the debate over our costs.

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Cost of Attendance

In the press today we read about a general perception that colleges and universities have been indifferent to costs over the recent past—that we are not doing our job because we aren’t bringing down these costs. I find this to be a curious response to our economic condition nationally and the state of higher education. For generations, we have supported and taken pride in the higher education system in the United States, a system the rest of the world has long admired. Liberal arts colleges like Bowdoin and our top Ivy and research universities form a gold standard for educating our best and brightest. Yet, today we live in a changed economic environment where the costs of this education are competing for scarce dollars during times of economic uncertainty. I believe every institution in our society—including colleges and universities—must respond thoughtfully to this new reality. It is our collective responsibility to fashion this response in a manner that allows all talented students to get a great education, not just the students from families that can afford the opportunity. So rather than spending social or political capital diminishing our institutions or, even worse, creating doubt about their effectiveness and the value of education, we must as a nation step up to the challenge of deciding how much, given the other demands on our resources, we are willing to spend to support what was and should be one of our highest national priorities: education.

At Bowdoin, I recognize that we must grapple with the issue of cost and expense to families as we seek to maintain the excellence of our College. As a community, we must be willing to make hard choices and to focus quite intently on what we consider to be core to our educational and residential model. Rather than being pessimistic about our future or equivocal about the value of a Bowdoin education, we know in our bones that our College prepares young people for a life of learning, success, and leadership in their communities. It is with this confidence that we will continue to move Bowdoin forward ambitiously into the future.

Everything we do at Bowdoin is guided by three firm principles: We must maintain Bowdoin’s quality as a liberal arts institution dedicated to teaching and learning; we must ensure access and opportunity; and we must remain steadfast in our commitment to the common good. Our future depends on it. Our future also depends on the enduring generosity of those who believe passionately in our mission, and we will continue to do everything possible to earn that support.

As we sprint toward the finish of this academic year and Commencement on May 26th, I want you to know how very proud I am of your sons and daughters and family members, as well as the members of Bowdoin’s faculty and staff. It has been another year of impressive achievement, and our College has never been stronger. I appreciate your support and your continued involvement in the life of the College, and Karen and I look forward to seeing many of you on campus in the coming year.

Enjoy the summer, and thank you all for your commitment to Bowdoin.

With best wishes,

Sincerely,

Barry Mills