Despite having a significantly larger endowment and spending more on financial aid, Bowdoin is not admitting significantly more students who receive financial aid. This has been the status quo at Bowdoin for the past 15 years. In 2002, roughly 40 percent of the student body received aid. In 2006, it was still 40 percent. As of the fall of 2016, 44 percent of the student body receives financial aid, meaning that over the past 15 years, the percentage of the student body receiving financial aid has increased by only 4 percentage points.
A study from the Equality of Opportunity Project republished in the New York Times last week laid bare the socioeconomic composition of the Bowdoin student body. The report shows 20 percent of the Bowdoin student body comes from the top 1 percent of the income spectrum (family income greater than aprox $630,000 per year,) which is more students than there are in the bottom three income quintiles combined. 69 percent of students' family incomes fall in the top quintile of the national income distribution, meaing their family made more than aprox. $110,000 per year. Only 3.8 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent (families who made less than aprox. $20,000 per year).
The study also revealed that the financial composition of the student body did not change significantly over the period it addressed (between 1998 and 2009). According to data from the College’s common data set and Office of Institutional Research and Consulting, the percentage of students receiving financial aid remained at roughly 45 percent of the student body from 2008 to 2015.
Since 2008, Bowdoin’s endowment per student has increased at an average rate of 3.8 percent per year reaching $1.5 million per student in 2015. Its average financial aid grant has increased at an average rate of 3.2 percent per year, but the College’s comprehensive fee increased at a similar average rate of 3.2 percent per year.
These numbers raise significant questions about the effectiveness of the College’s need-blind admissions policy (which has been in place for over 15 years) in actively creating socioeconomically diverse classes. They also indicate that the school’s ever increasing comprehensive fee is at odds with this mission.
Bowdoin regularly talks about diversity as a priority and socioeconomic diversity is a big part of this. The College has made real steps over this period, such as eliminating loans as an aspect of financial aid packages in 2008 under former President Barry Mills and dropping the application fee for first-generation and financial aid-seeking applicants in 2016.
President Clayton Rose confirmed this mission and his desire to build more socioeconomic diversity, but argued that maintaining a roughly steady level of financial aid recipients itself has taken work.
“The steady state of students who are attending elite schools who come from the low economic strata suggests that there’s been some real work that’s kept that number at that level and I think that our experience bears that out. I think we’ve worked really hard to make that happen and a number of our peer schools, perhaps all of them, have as well. And I think the fruit of that is that we’ve been able to keep that steady.”
Both Rose and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Whitney Soule defended the College’s need-blind admissions policy.
“I would say that being need-blind is a huge opportunity for this college,” said Soule. “To put the emphasis on going out to find the students who have the qualities that we’re seeking and look at them as people and to be going through a recruitment and selection process that is separating them from need. And I think it’s an incredibly important value.”
Soule also said that the need-blind process actually does create socioeconomically diverse classes.
“We are not placing investigation or emphasis on [socioeconomic diversity] on a particular application. How much does the student need? But by being need-blind, it naturally is setting our admit decisions across the array of the socioeconomic strata.”
While the College does enroll students from across the socioeconomic spectrum, the newly published data indicate that it enrolls a disproportionate number of students from the high end of the income spectrum.
Rose emphasized the structural factors that prevent Bowdoin from creating socioeconomically diverse classes.
“Our challenge—and we know this is true and the study reinforces it—our challenge and every school’s challenge is that the number of low income students that apply to elite schools is lower than it should be.”
Soule added that often, students lower on the income spectrum are not thinking about and not prepared for elite schools like Bowdoin.
“If you think about the country at large and much of education ... there’s public funding in every state that educates most of our young people,” she said. “And the disparity of the quality of education, across resources—that also plays out in preparation for higher ed and who’s thinking about going to a school like Bowdoin and how we find those students.”
Soule and Rose both emphasized that admissions outreach and recruiting has a big effect on who applies to Bowdoin and is the primary tool the school uses to attract lower income students. The more lower-income students that become aware of Bowdoin, the more that apply and the more the College is able to admit.
Every year, Bowdoin sends its 14 admissions officers across the country to meet with prospective applicants at high schools and college fairs. Last year, they visited 450 schools. Sending them to areas of socioeconomic diversity is a priority.
Admissions employs various methods to attract lower-income students including partnering with community based college-prep organizations so that more lower income students are aware of Bowdoin and traveling with groups of admissions counselors from other peer schools like Pomona and Swarthmore.
Soule said that for the past three years she has abandoned the practice of taking a two-week trip to New York City where she would hold a series of information sessions with students at specific schools, many of them private. Instead, for the past three years, the admissions team has held a few information session nights and invited students from across the city.
She says this gets prospective students who are lower on the income spectrum in the room with a more diverse range of applications and helps them see themselves in the context of a more diverse Bowdoin rather than the more limited applicant pool that might show up to an information session at any given school.
“What it does is it brings a lot of people into a room, often with a lot more kids and their parents from all over the city from different boroughs and from completely different kinds of high schools. And when you sit in that room and look around at the people who are interested in Bowdoin, that’s what our prospect pool is, so that’s been really effective.”
This is a strategy Soule hopes to employ in other cities in the future.
The steady increase in the cost of college is a factor that works against its ability to provide access to lower-income students. As the cost of college goes up, so does the amount of financial aid required to send a student to Bowdoin. If rate of growth of financial aid grants does not exceed the rate of tuition growth, the financial aid dollars available to distribute will only cover roughly the same number of students.
Addressing the increasing cost of college is a priority for Rose.
“We’re going through serious exercises to understand our budget, to take out whatever fat—fat isn’t even the word because there’s no fat in it—but really making tough choices about where we’re going to spend our money,” he said.
Currently, roughly 64 percent of the budget goes to payroll and 36 percent of the budget goes to operations. Rose said touching payroll is not an option and that the focus of his budget review will be on the 34 percent that is dedicated to operations.
According to Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Matt Orlando, the budget office has implemented a new practice this budget season that requires departments to justify every expenditure in their budgets and presumes a 0 percent growth rate rather than the traditional 2-4 percent increase.
Orlando said the practice is aimed at slowing the growth of departmental budgets and identifying areas of spending that may no longer be priorities.
Still, some of the increasing cost is tied to inflation—around 2-3 percent currently—and is likely inevitable.
Bowdoin’s performance in admitting students from lower on the income spectrum does not compare poorly to its peer schools.
Jordan Richmond ’16, who worked on the Equality of Opportunity project as a predoctoral fellow with Stanford economics professor Raj Chetty, said that one of the study’s key findings is that across the board, the percentage of poor students at elite schools has remained the same over the course of the study, from 1998 to 2009.
Despite expressing support for a socioeconomically diverse class, Rose believes that a student body that reflects an equal distribution across the income spectrum of the country is not realistic and is not Bowdoin’s mission.
“The idea that we should look like the country—I think that’s unrealistic in that not every student is prepared for Bowdoin and many students from low-income backgrounds are engaged in educational experiences in junior high and high and grammar school which leave them ill-prepared. Our job is to find all those great students, if we can, that have the ability to do the work here and get them to apply to Bowdoin,” he said.
“The real thing, I think, to take away from all of this is that how you interpret your results totally depends on what you think the goals of a college are and what our model of education should aim to accomplish,” said Richmond.
Gideon Moore contributed to this report.