May 28, 2010
We gather each year at this time to reflect on the academic year just completed and to begin officially our Commencement activities — the time when we honor and say farewell to the members of the Class of 2010 who have earned the high distinction conveyed by a Bowdoin degree, and who have added so much to our community these past four years.
It is a time for celebrating all that you — our seniors — have accomplished, and for looking forward. It is also a time to reflect on Bowdoin's proud traditions, particularly our steadfast adherence to the ideals of liberal education and our commitment to serving the common good.
It has been my practice at these Baccalaureate assemblies to address issues that have importance to the Bowdoin community in the broadest sense. In past years, I have spoken about the environment and global warming, the importance of the arts in the liberal arts; the significance of financial aid to our core mission, the "exceptionalism" of Bowdoin; and last year, the challenges to Bowdoin presented by the financial crisis.
Today, I speak about the state of higher education in America. I do this somewhat at my peril because joining us here today is one of the most important thought leaders on this subject: our honorand, Michael McPherson, of the Spencer Foundation. In fact, it is no coincidence that each of our honorary degree recipients this year is an important leader, participant in, or supporter of education. So, as we gather with them to celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2010, I thought it appropriate to begin a conversation on this critical subject.
This year, over 6,000 high school seniors applied for admission to Bowdoin — roughly the same number who applied to each of our peer colleges in NESCAC. We admitted about 18 percent of these students with the expectation that we would have a preliminary class of 475 students on May 1. This would have allowed us to take 10 terrific students from the waiting list now, and another 15 to 20 students later this summer when we experienced what's known in the admissions business as "summer melt" — a slight reduction in the size of the class caused when some students decide to defer or to matriculate elsewhere. All of this, we predicted, would have assembled a Bowdoin Class of 2014 with about 485 students.
We were wrong. Instead of that preliminary goal of 475 on May 1, we found ourselves with an eager class of 520 students. Now, given how much you all love Bowdoin, this level of popularity may not surprise you, but it did surprise us. The high-end of our in-house pool had predicted 493 students, and my own bet of 487 students was a loser.
We're not panicking yet. We haven't ordered any house trailers or portable classrooms for the Quad. Chances are still good that we will melt down to where we wanted to be, but all of this raises questions about what's going on. Our yield of accepted students was among the highest ever this year, certainly higher than in the past ten years. And this all happened during the worst financial crisis we've seen in decades. How can that be, and what does this mean for our future?
It is surely not wise to draw conclusions from a single year, but there has been a pattern over the past few years that is unmistakable. Despite the economic downturn, or perhaps because of it, there is a "flight to quality" by students and parents as they think about college. The good news for Bowdoin is that we are justifiably among the 20 or so private colleges or universities in America at the top of everyone's list. And this is with due regard to the fact that nearly every one of these colleges charges $50,000 or more per year.
Bowdoin is popular because we are known for the quality of the education and the experience we provide. And those of you who know Bowdoin best have helped to spread the word, both through your descriptions of the College and through your example. Each of you has been our "press agent," amplifying the "Offer of the College" in your communities. There's no question that Bowdoin is "hot," and that our admissions success is, in large part, the result of what is known and what is perceived about what we do here. But that is not the whole story.
The applicant pool for excellent private colleges and universities has expanded because of our collective efforts to make education available to everyone. As I've mentioned, Bowdoin received over 6,000 applications this year for 485 spots, and we admitted 18 percent of those students. Brown had over 30,000 applications this year and admitted about nine percent, while Harvard admitted only seven percent of their 30,489 applicants. Of course, one reason for the steep growth in applications is the Common Application, which makes it possible for students to apply with relative ease to many colleges. But more importantly, our applicant pools have grown because we are reaching out to excellent students from across America and the world regardless of their financial means. By improving accessibility, our nation's top colleges and universities — including Bowdoin — are now attractive possibilities for whole groups of students who live outside what was previously our traditional recruitment areas — students who may have never before thought of Bowdoin, or Brown, or Harvard.
As a result of these increased applications, and the fact that our best colleges and universities have not grown substantially, there are many more excellent applicants than we have spots available.
These efforts to expand our reach, the "flight to quality," and the coincident problems that are occurring in public education have reinforced the position of private liberal arts colleges and universities in a manner we would not have predicted even a decade ago, when many were concerned about the demise of the liberal arts model. This phenomenon is not limited to the very best private colleges and universities. Given the quality of the students Bowdoin attracts and is now matriculating, schools further down the reputation chain are seeing students they never dreamed would be attracted to their schools. Reports from the educational marketplace indicate heavy demand at most levels in private education.
From my perspective, as a leader of one of these institutions, this is not a time to celebrate or to become complacent. While the demand from highly qualified students is strong, the number of students who have the ability to pay for the education is steadily decreasing, and the demand by students who need help to attend our colleges is increasing.
All of this is happening in a period when the costs to operate a college — even in this deflationary period — continue to rise. So much so, that it now costs us approximately $83,000 a year to educate a single student at Bowdoin, well above what for many of you has been a very painful fee of more than $50,000 a year. What this says to me is that while the demand by prospective students is there because of the quality of our program, the program is being provided at a cost that is unsustainable for many colleges and universities. Our challenge, then, is to figure out how we can continue to educate young men and women in ways that allow them to be productive and satisfied within an economic model that is sustainable.
The question is clouded by the immediate term financial stress we are all experiencing and reacting to. In fact, this stress may divert us from the genuine and fundamental question of how we match quality with available resources over the long term. Sure, for now, we can balance our budgets by freezing salaries and limiting new construction, but this doesn't address the more difficult questions about the fundamental model itself.
At places like Bowdoin, because of our financial health and the generosity of our alumni, parents, and friends, we have the opportunity to make decisions in a relatively secure environment. Even so, it is vital for us — and even more vital for those less wealthy colleges and universities — to consider realistically and rigorously the model of education as well as our goals for and measures of success. I am intentionally not suggesting today solutions to these issues, for my intent at this point is to identify for you the vexing problem facing liberal arts colleges and universities and remind you that we at Bowdoin have not lost sight of the dilemma posed by the inconvenient juxtaposition of cost and quality.
These same questions face our public universities and public education in general, but in a more profound manner for our country because these are the places that educate millions of Americans. There is enormous and disproportionate focus in the media on the Harvards, Yales and Bowdoins of the world, but the strength of this country is largely dependent on what is happening in our state four-year institutions and in our community colleges. Given the condition of our national and state economies, these public educational institutions are experiencing dramatic reductions in support that further limit an effectiveness that has already been in decline. One need only read about the condition of public education in California, or about the public institutions right here in Maine that are dealing with drastic cuts in their budgets and program. (For an in depth and exhaustive study of the challenges facing our public institutions. I recommend to you a book by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael McPherson titled Crossing the Finish Line, Completing College at America's Public Universities.)
Our challenges are not only with the operation and affordability of the institutions themselves. They also include the issue President Obama has correctly identified: completion of college and attainment of a degree, not merely attendance by students across the economic spectrum. It is undeniable that many students in America are simply not achieving at these public institutions in a manner that will sustain successful lives or in the numbers necessary for an educated workforce competing in a global economy.
All of this was true before the economic crisis. It was true for our flagship state institutions and even more so for the other public four-year and community colleges. Our economic challenges of the past period have only made these issues worse and have possibly put them at a crisis level.
We all recognize that education provides the path to success for individuals, and we know that education is the primary driver for our nation's economy. The fundamental national policy question is: How do we educate our citizenry to put our country on a path for success and continued innovation? And linked inextricably to this question is: How do we finance that education given our other priorities and the strained economic condition of our citizenry? The answers will require innovation in strategy and delivery, and it is also quite conceivable that they will require disruptive change — the kind of change that will fundamentally alter the educational landscape.
What does this mean for Bowdoin? Well, it is safe to say that our College is well insulated from many of these issues because we are relatively secure financially and can therefore continue to provide our program. That said, it won't surprise you to hear me say that we will always need additional resources to sustain and improve the College. We are also insulated from some of these concerns because we know who we are and understand what we do well. For over 200 years, Bowdoin has maintained a commitment to liberal education and to the common good. As long as we stay true to that mission, I believe Bowdoin will continue to thrive.
But what's more important in many ways is that in sustaining our focus and remaining true to our mission, Bowdoin will continue to do its part in helping to solve the vexing issues facing our educational system and our nation. The truth is that folks from Bowdoin are already at the forefront of these discussions. People like Geoff Canada at the Harlem Children's Zone, a member of the Bowdoin Class of 1974, and Melissa Roderick at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a member of the Class of 1983. Both are doing critical work understanding the effectiveness and the role of public education. Many others, trained in the liberal arts tradition are helping and will continue to help reshape education in America. It is our responsibility to tackle these questions, and I have every confidence that many in this arena today will be among those who lead the way.
Now, as we prepare to close this academic year, a word of gratitude to the Bowdoin faculty: Thank you all for your dedication to your students, to your scholarship, and to Bowdoin. I wish you all well as you continue throughout the summer months on your scholarship, research, and artistic work, and I look forward to reconvening the College with you in the fall.
To our dedicated and fantastic staff: Thank you!
To our graduating seniors, I wish you all the best as you leave Brunswick to begin the next phase of your promising lives. Some of you may not yet know what you'll be doing next month or next year. But rest assured that in earning a Bowdoin degree you are well prepared for whatever comes next, and for what comes after that.
The only certainty is that your lives will change and then change again. I stand before you as a college president who used to be a corporate lawyer, and before that a biologist.
No one, especially me, could have predicted such a course when I attended my own Baccalaureate ceremony 38 years ago. And I am by no means alone. Bowdoin's alumni rolls are full of people who have moved successfully from one field of endeavor to another as the world has revealed new opportunities and offered new challenges. Each of you is prepared to succeed in the way they have succeeded. We are proud of you and of everything you have accomplished here, and we look forward to saluting you on the Quad tomorrow morning.
Finally, let us remind ourselves of where we started four years ago with "The Offer of the College," those words of William DeWitt Hyde from 1906:
"To make hosts of friends who are to be leaders in all walks of life; to lose oneself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends."
To the Class of 2010 — you future artists, leaders, statesmen and stateswomen — to each of you who will bring even greater pride to Bowdoin in years to come, I wish you success and a life of learning and deeds well done.