Investing in Opportunity

As the College prepares to announce officially an effort to fund additional need-based financial aid for students, Barry Mills talks about some of the obstacles facing low- and middle-income families thinking about college, how the aid initiative will benefit Bowdoin, and why providing access and opportunity ought to remain bedrock principles of the College. This Q&A first appeared as part of President Mills's regular "Answers" section of Bowdoin Magazine, Winter 2014.

Bowdoin currently provides need-based aid to about 44 percent of the student body. How does our goal to increase that to 50 percent—about an additional 90-100 students—make Bowdoin a better place? Who benefits?

We all benefit. We benefit because we are able to attract, admit, and retain and graduate the very best students in our applicant pool. We benefit because having these students here will improve what goes on in the classrooms, on the campus as a whole, on the playing fields, and throughout our community. And over the long haul, we benefit because these people will go off and do great things. If our ambition is to be a place that educates the very best, having the resources to attract the very best without regard to their family condition is essential to the College.

How much money are we talking about?

It’s somewhere north of $100 million.

And how are we doing on that effort?

We’re well on our way. We have just started recently to talk to people about this new initiative, and we’ve raised somewhere in the range of $25 million to $30 million already. I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.

How is the student aid program different than when you became president in 2001?

We support many more students on an absolute basis than we ever did. The percentage of our students that we support is much higher, and many of the students we support are low-income students, with about 14 percent of our students receiving Pell Grants. But we also support a substantial number of middle-class students and even some students whose parents start to border up on the “one percent,” because, given our fee, it’s essential that we’re able to admit low-income students, students from the middle class, and now students from the upper middle class who need support to be able to come to the College.

Of course, a counterargument is that this is a bottomless hole, that the College should get hold of its costs rather than increasing the financial-aid budget.

There is no doubt that getting control of our costs is a corollary to this problem. So, the college must—and we do, as far as I’m concerned—on a daily basis really work hard to think about what’s important for Bowdoin, not relative to what other schools are doing, but what’s important for us. We have to make sure that we’re making choices that make sense for Bowdoin. So there’s no question that we have to stay focused and be disciplined in the way we spend our money.

There are plenty of strong colleges and universities out there that are not “need-blind.” Would it really be such a terrible thing if Bowdoin became “need-aware” for a certain percentage of the class?

This isn’t a religion. This is an issue of principle for the College that really goes to the core of this common good commitment we’ve made throughout our history. Our goal is to be able to admit the very best and brightest without regard to their family circumstance. We seek to do that in the context of the resources we have. To the extent we have those resources and people feel that that commitment to “need-blind” admission is consistent with the common good, we ought to be able to continue that commitment.

It would be unfortunate, given our history, for the College to find itself to have to admit students on a “need-aware” basis. In that case, I would expect that we would still provide all of the financial aid needed to keep Bowdoin open to low- and moderate-income students who deserve to be here. But I don't think we are at the point of even considering this alternative. I’d rather stay committed to our principles. I think it’s possible and, frankly, likely that we will achieve this financial goal and be able to continue our strong tradition of admitting students to Bowdoin without regard to financial need.

You recently attended a meeting at the White House focusing on greater access to higher education for low-income students. What was the takeaway from that meeting?

The takeaway is that there are still vast numbers of low-income students, in particular, who aren’t able to find their way to wonderful colleges for a whole variety of reasons. Clearly, one of the big roadblocks is the cost of college and the availability of financial aid. But there are other impediments that make it hard for people to apply to college, to fill out financial-aid forms, or to maneuver through the process.

For example, the fact that there are 400 students for one guidance counselor in many states is pretty daunting, especially if you think about the resources that many upper-income families have to help their students through the college process. It’s important for us as a nation to think about how we provide that kind of assistance to students who are very high achieving but who can’t find their way to our places simply because they just don’t have access to the roadmap.

Is Bowdoin doing enough in that regard?

You never do enough. Given the pipeline of low- and moderate-income students who want come to our College—both from Maine and from away—I think we’re doing a very good job but you can always do more.

You were quoted in the newspaper recently saying that colleges need to de-mystify the financial-aid process. How do we do that?

It’s important for us to simplify the forms, to make it clear to families that the “sticker price” of Bowdoin isn’t necessarily the net price for them, and to make it clear to those families that colleges like Bowdoin have the resources to allow those students to enroll and succeed. And we all need to use technology in much more effective ways to get this message out there.

Bowdoin replaced the student-loan requirement with grants back in 2008. Lots of other colleges—including some with greater resources—still require loans. Others did away with loans and then went back to requiring them. Why is Bowdoin sticking with this practice?

Well, let’s be clear. For most of the schools that had the no-loan program and went back, they continue to be no-loan for low-income students. So, the students at these schools who are now required to borrow are actually middle-income students. It’s my view that, if we can afford it, allowing those middle-income students to avoid burdensome debt is a great benefit to them going forward. I think our principle of assisting middle-income students the same way we assist low-income students is something that ought to endure.

You talk about burdensome debt, but many argue that a reasonable amount of debt upon graduation is actually a good thing because it ensures that the student has a stake in his or her education.

I’m not sure any debt is a good thing. If you look at our statistics, even though we’ve converted all of our loans into grants, a considerable number of our students are still borrowing. I actually think that’s okay, because given the jobs that they’re going to get and the kinds of things that they’re going to do in their life, this quite moderate amount of debt—which is much, much less than the national average—isn’t going to be burdensome to these students. But if you impose burdensome debt on students, then they start to make career choices and job choices and life choices that are driven by that debt.

Now, there’s an argument out there that if you don’t have debt—if you don’t have “skin in the game”—you’re not going to take college seriously. Well, that overlooks the fact that we certainly do expect our students on financial aid to work in the summer and to contribute to their education. So, these students do have “skin in the game.” But it has always surprised me that people think that low- and middle-income students need to have debt to take their college experience seriously but my kids, who happen to be privileged, don’t have any debt and don’t have to have any “skin in the game.” Why is it that privileged kids can be counted on to take their education seriously but poor kids need debt to take college seriously? I just don’t get it, and I don’t think it’s correct. If you look at the commitment that our low-income students have to their education and to Bowdoin, you quickly come to the conclusion that these students take the opportunity they’re getting from the College very, very seriously.

You seem to be personally invested in the initiative to raise more money for financial aid. Why do you feel so strongly about it?

When you look at our country and the principle that, in America, everyone should have the opportunity to succeed, it’s important to our College and to me personally that there’s a level playing field.

All stories are personal. My parents were middle-class people. My father didn’t finish the tenth grade. My mother graduated from high school. They both worked very hard and were very entrepreneurial and that allowed me to come to Bowdoin College. Bowdoin helped us a little in the financial aid arena to make it possible for me to come here, and I’ve been pretty lucky in life.

I understand what it means to be a first-generation college student and what these places can do. I understand how the opportunity to go to a place like Bowdoin changes individual lives, changes families, and, over the long haul, changes communities. And that really ought to be the goal of Bowdoin. If the common good is about anything, it should be about creating opportunity for students, regardless of their background. It’s about the American dream. We’ve been around for nearly 220 years. We represent the American dream and we ought to be pursuing that and enhancing that for our students. That’s why it’s important.