June 5, 2010
In his Reunion Convocation address delivered Saturday morning in Watson Area, President Mills explained the importance of maintaining accessibility to Bowdoin through continued support for financial aid.
Welcome back to Bowdoin. And to those of you "from away," welcome back to Maine.
It is really an honor for me to stand before you this morning as president of Bowdoin. I’ve said it many times at these events, but I have to restate that I am enormously proud—as an alumnus who reveres the history and traditions of this College—to have the opportunity to lead Bowdoin over the past nine years. I also admit to being more than a little humbled by the responsibility I have to all of you who feel so deeply about this College and are committed to its future.
Again this year, Bowdoin has been the beneficiary of a striking level of generous support from alumni, parents, and friends—support that means a great deal financially, but also represents a gratifying level of confidence in the College by people who matter a great deal and who know Bowdoin best. From alumni who appreciate first-hand the lasting benefits of a Bowdoin education, to friends who see this College as a beacon, to past and present parents who, in addition to meeting the significant costs of educating their daughters and sons here, step forward to do even more.
In a few moments, you will hear about the impressive level of giving by the classes represented in this arena today. This is your time to take well-deserved pride in all that you do for Bowdoin and, through Bowdoin, for higher education in America. And it is a time for us to thank you once again, wholeheartedly, for your vital support.
As you walk around this campus on this beautiful spring weekend in Maine, I hope you also have a sense of pride in your College. Ours is among the most beautiful and historic college campuses in the world. And I am certain that as you stand in the middle of the Quad this weekend you will all remember what a special place this is and what it means to you.
Last Saturday, as I was walking in the Commencement procession, Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree asked me how long Karen and I have been at Bowdoin. She was surprised to learn that we are about to begin our tenth year. She said people still ask her if she has met the "new" president of Bowdoin. Nine years and still "new!" I guess there are two ways of looking at that: either I haven’t made much of an impact and people are still waiting for something to happen, or we’ve kept things moving so swiftly that everything seems new and exciting. I hope it is the latter—that’s certainly how I feel.
But even after nine years, my fundamental message about the College remains the same: Bowdoin is a place for education of the highest quality in the liberal arts tradition that must remain accessible to qualified students from all across America without regard to their financial means.
Our unwavering commitment to liberal education combined with our dedication to serving the common good makes Bowdoin a singular institution that is indisputably among the very, very best colleges and universities in America and the world. We also happen to be a very popular place!
We had a very successful year in admissions this year—maybe a little too successful! Our goal was a class of 485 students, but there are currently 514 students who now say they will be arriving in the fall. Our yield on accepted students was simply through the roof! We do believe we have a fair chance of getting down to our projected class size or at least close to that number through what we call "summer melt"¬—when students defer attendance or accept other offers—so we aren’t in panic mode just yet.
As I said last week at Baccalaureate, we are simply a "hot school." And we are one of the twenty or so great schools in America that attract the interest of the very best students and their parents. As Jim Miller, our former dean of admissions who is now at Brown, said to me recently, there is a "flight to quality in higher education" and Bowdoin is on the flight path. But our well-deserved reputation isn’t the whole story.
It is nearly impossible today to get into Bowdoin and even tougher to get into some of the Ivies. Brown had 30,000 applications and admitted only 9% of the applicants, while Harvard admitted only 7%. The pool of applicants to Bowdoin and these other fine institutions has expanded because we reach out to students not previously on our radar—young men and women from all backgrounds, locations, and economic conditions.
Meanwhile, reduced federal and state funding for our public colleges and universities is having a serious adverse impact on the already diminished quality at these institutions, even as their costs continue to rise. The result for America’s private colleges and universities is accelerated demand from a whole lot of excellent students. I discussed these issues in greater depth last week at Baccalaureate, and my talk can be found on the Bowdoin website.
Let me connect for you the cost of the education to the costs of the opportunity. When the class of 1960 graduated from Bowdoin, the comprehensive fee was $1,860—about $13,000 a year in today’s money. For the class of 1985 it was $12,902— about $25,000 today.
We announced a couple of weeks ago that for next year, our comprehensive fee will be $52,880. We can all debate whether this fee is sustainable, but the program provided by the College actually costs $86,560 per student. And even if all the students at the College were full pay and we gave away no financial aid, it would still cost $72,000 per student per year for Bowdoin to provide this education and this experience. Accordingly, each and every student at the College is on financial aid supported directly or indirectly by the strength of our endowment.
It is clearly an expensive proposition to be among the best colleges and universities in America. Why is that? Where does all that money go? Well, there are many reasons for the cost—some expense is due to facilities like this one, but the cost is really about people and program. And it is those people and that program that cement our position as a great college.
We could have larger classes at Bowdoin and fewer professors and fewer course offerings, but that would not be the Bowdoin you admire.
We could have fewer sports, less art, less theatre, fewer outdoor adventures and leadership opportunities in the Outing Club, and fewer extracurricular activities, but that wouldn’t be the Bowdoin you admire.
We could shrink the activities of the McKeen Center for the Common Good, eliminate support for community service, and reduce the opportunities for our students to do research with faculty—but again—that wouldn’t be the Bowdoin you admire.
Sure, around the edges there are always ways to cut costs, and we have done so impressively over the past couple of years as we have literally cut millions of dollars from our expenses, but fundamentally, we have to face up to the fact that given the number of people involved in providing a Bowdoin education, it is powerfully expensive and it will continue to be powerfully expensive.
Bowdoin today is relatively well positioned to meet these challenges and to maintain and even enhance its position in the world of exceptional liberal arts colleges. Our endowment is strong and very respectable on endowment-per-student except in comparison to the most wealthy colleges in America. We have just completed an important capital campaign, raising nearly $300 million on a goal of $250 million with support from the entire community that was nothing short of inspiring. And we had some luck on our side too. We began in a very frothy economy and finished just as the world was beginning its economic slide. Timing is everything and luck comes to those who prepare well and work hard.
This capital campaign was focused primarily on financial aid and faculty positions, and it has enabled us—in a challenging economy—to continue to hire talented faculty in important areas like creative writing, oceanography, and theatre and dance.
But it will come as no surprise to you that the work of supporting Bowdoin is never done, especially given our ambition to enhance our program in order to ensure that we remain forever among the very best liberal arts college in America. And it should be no surprise, given this ambition, that we seek to create even more opportunity for the most talented students from around the United States and the world to come to Bowdoin to create better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities.
My message to you then, is the same message I have delivered for my entire tenure as president of this College. The most important imperative for this College is our financial aid endowment, for it is our ability to bring the best and most talented students to this College that is the greatest strength of Bowdoin.
We will be a strong college forever as long as we can make decisions on talent without regard to background or the ability to pay our fee.
Consider Kyle Dempsey—Class of 2011—a winner of the prestigious Truman fellowship. Kyle grew up in East Millinocket, Maine, and was the first in his family to attend college. As he looks forward to a career in medicine, Kyle speaks passionately about what Bowdoin has done for him. He says the aid he has received here has provided a powerful motivation for him to help others, and he has called his time at Bowdoin an "amazing, life-changing experience."
Or consider Rasha Harvey—Class of 2012—who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and worked last summer at the Countee Cullen Community Center in Harlem. This summer he is at the compliance unit at Goldman Sachs working—as he describes it—to make money so he can take care of his Momma and family. At this year’s Scholarship Luncheon, Rasha spoke of "The Offer of the College," and the Bowdoin ideal of using education "to bring positive change to humanity." And he thanked the donors present for providing "the key bridge between [students] and the fulfillment of that ideal."
Or consider Jess McGreehan who graduated two years ago with a degree in geology. Like Kyle, and so many others at Bowdoin, Jess was the first in her family to attend college, but she almost didn’t end up here. Jess, who grew up in South Portland, Maine, dreamed of going to college out west, and she was admitted to Pomona College. But she came to Bowdoin because, as she said, she wanted to go to a college "that was giving, and caring, and generous, and that understood her family’s circumstances." In the end, she never regretted her decision to endure four more Maine winters. Bowdoin, she said, provided "unconditional support," "fostered "unimaginable growth," and truly "made a difference" in her life.
We all know the story of Geoff Canada of the Class of 1974 and know even better the story of George Mitchell of the Class of 1954 who has spoken countless times about the difference Bowdoin and financial aid made in his life. So much so, that he has devoted much of his time since leaving the Senate to his own scholarship program that has provided $7 million to 1,650 Maine students, including many at Bowdoin. As Senator Mitchell wrote in a letter to me just last week, "after my family, the scholarship program means more to me than anything else in my life."
Today Bowdoin’s financial aid endowment sits at approximately $300 million providing about 55% of our annual financial aid support. We continue to provide financial aid to students on a "need blind’ basis. The financial aid burden of the College increased significantly a couple of years ago when we replaced loans with grants as part of our financial aid package. This conversion of loans to grants recognized that students are graduating from college with simply too much debt, a burden that affects career choices after college. And given these economic times, we can expect to see more students who require aid, especially as our costs continue to rise even in what may be, for the short term, a deflationary environment. Simply put, our financial aid needs will increase and we must have the capacity to support the demand.
Why support financial aid? For those of you motivated by self-interest, it is simply because Bowdoin cannot be the strong college we aspire to be without these resources. There is what I call an "inconvenient juxtaposition" between the cost of college and the expense of our operations. To remain a preeminent college, we must provide an extensive and rigorous program. If we are forced to cut our program because we can’t afford it, Bowdoin will find itself in a downward spiral and the world will notice. At that point, a Bowdoin degree loses the immense value that it holds today.
For those of you motivated not only by self-interest, but also a commitment to the common good and social justice, financial aid is among the most important and effective ways to give back and create equal opportunity for all. There is simply no justification for calibrating opportunity for education based on whether someone is rich or poor. When we support a student at Bowdoin, we improve the lives of not only that individual student—but also the lives of their family and, very likely, others lives within their community. I invite you to think of the payback to the College and pay forward from a common good and social justice perspective of this College’s decision to support Geoff Canada and George Mitchell. And there are countless others who have changed their families and their communities because Bowdoin provided support—many of whom are in this arena today. The internal rate of return for our country, for our communities, is at the highest order, and the measure of personal gratification for us as a College and as individuals could not be any greater. The social amplification of our action to support low- and middle-class students has the power to change this country, far beyond a commonsense expectation when one thinks of Bowdoin as a small college in Maine. When our alumni, parents, and friends support financial aid, they are not only supporting education, they are also supporting social justice and opportunity in America in profound ways. We, as a College, have proven this time and time again because we know that education opens the door to opportunity. Without education, it is nearly impossible to improve one’s lot in life.
I am well aware of the financial crisis, and I am aware that we just completed a capital campaign where we raised nearly $100 million to support financial aid after having raised $35 million during my first three years at the College. This is—any way you look at it—a lot of money. But candidly, in 2001 we were substantially undercapitalized for financial aid and our efforts over the recent past have placed us on the right trajectory.
When will we have enough money? Only when we can, with assurance, maintain our education and residential life program in a responsible way and make decisions on students without fear that our financial aid budget will create hardship for the institution. It is a core value of Bowdoin that we remain need-blind in admissions, and we have similarly all become proud of our no-loan policy. It is essential that over the near term we further endow this College to support its financial aid costs so that the legacy of this generation is paying forward and ensuring forever the strength of Bowdoin and the social benefit we provide.
We all have for this College the expectation of an ambitious future. We all have aspirations for Bowdoin to be ranked among the best or perhaps the best liberal arts college in America. We must do all we can at this point in our history to ensure that we are the place that creates dramatic opportunity for all—the most meaningful and complete definition of the common good.
I have visited many of you and with other alumni over these past nine years, and I am proud to report that our alumni community continues to display the energy and determination that are required to achieve all that we want and expect for Bowdoin.
Colleges and universities across the country yearn to have an alumni group as talented, as generous, and as enthusiastic as this one. Bowdoin creates and nurtures special relationships with its sons and daughters. We respect and value those relationships and look forward to building even stronger ties with each of you as we advance the mission of this wonderful College.
Karen and I are delighted to have you back on campus with us today, and we look forward to speaking with as many of you as we can this weekend, and to welcoming you again as many times in the future as you are able to return.
Now, enjoy the weekend! I hope you take time to tour the campus, visit with faculty and staff, and take pleasure in your classmates, family and friends.
I hope you’ll revel in some nostalgia for Bowdoin’s past, take pride in the Bowdoin of today, and recommit yourselves to our important work together to shape an even stronger Bowdoin of tomorrow.