The Bowdoin community represents families from nearly all socio-economic backgrounds, all forms of wealth, and all levels of income. On campus, there are some who are poor and some who own five yachts. Most are in between. Some families cannot pay even five percent of tuition. Others can afford to donate a building or two to the College.
For most, a scan of the student body may not produce many visible signs of economic diversity. Those who come from working-class backgrounds, however, are keenly aware of wealth that surrounds them and feel uncomfortable in class, at meals, and especially when talking about plans for winter break. When you are going to work all break at McDonald's, it cannot be easy to hear that your friend is going to spend the winter on his sailboat in the Virgin Islands.
Although 42 percent of students are on financial aid, the majority go to school without one dollar of help from the College. Their families pay $32,650 each year in base tuition, with most spending close to $41,660 for room, board, and other fees. By comparison, the 1999 median household income in Brunswick, Maine was $40,402.
Without aid, imagine the population at Bowdoin?"preppy" New Englanders. Indeed, with few exceptions, this was the population of the College every year until the 1950s.
Financial aid is a relatively new concept at colleges and universities. According to Stephen Joyce, Director of Student Aid at Bowdoin, "Schools had, particularly Harvard and some of the Ivies, made it clear that they wanted to provide opportunities to less wealthy, but very able students. Harvard was a pioneer, and...John Monro [Harvard's director of financial aid in the 1950s] was really the first one to formalize financial aid... He is generally considered to be the father of financial aid."
Bowdoin grad Walter Moulton '58 was the father of financial aid at Bowdoin.
Mr. Moulton spent time in the military and the private sector after graduating from Bowdoin. He became the College's director of financial aid in 1962. Under Moulton's guidance, Bowdoin began to incorporate aid into the admissions arena. Not only did Bowdoin and other schools show their commitment to crafting well-rounded student bodies, but Joyce believes that collegiate "institutions began more and more to see it as part of their social responsibility to educate students and kids from all economic backgrounds."
Today, Bowdoin's admissions process is need blind. Joyce reports that Bowdoin is among roughly 20 schools in New England and 50 nationwide to use need-blind admissions. The admissions department uses this as a significant tool to lure less wealthy candidates to Brunswick, so, in effect, this expensive school is affordable for all qualified applicants.
Though admissions molds diverse classes, Associate Professor of Sociology Joe Bandy believes that "in a society where class fundamentally shapes educational opportunity and achievement, colleges seeking high-achieving students likely will admit disproportionate numbers of students from more privileged backgrounds."
According to Bandy, "This means that, even with need-blind admissions, those students defined as 'best' may come from schools and families with greater wealth. If Bowdoin seeks greater class diversity, we need to continue to expand our recruitment of good students from less privileged areas and be very conscious of the class-based assumptions that shape how we define 'best.'"
While need-blind admissions is helpful, Professor Daniel Levine, a Bowdoin faculty member since 1963, suggests that "need blind is a little bit misleading because the need will not be necessarily covered by the financial aid that you get, and for the poorer families, it looks like they have an awful lot of burden left."
Levine has seen countless changes at Bowdoin?physical, academic, philosophical, administrative, demographic. When he began, "there were only two black students on the whole campus," whereas now there are 128 students of color in the class of 2009 alone.
And even though there has been an increase in racial and economic diversity, discomfort is still a part of the Bowdoin experience for many students. Some feel aloof, some unique, and some simply feel awkward.
Joyce acknowledges that "wealth is polarizing" here at Bowdoin, and that "it's an issue for students, one to another, one for faculty, and for leaders of activities including coaches, and certainly an issue for us in [the student aid] office."
Wealth is not only polarizing at Bowdoin, but in society as well. On one of Bandy's PowerPoint slides for his course "Class, Labor, and Power," he reports from the 2000 U.N. Development Report that the "ratio of the average income [in the United States] of the top 20 percent to that of the bottom 20 percent went from 10.2 in 1968 to 14.6 in 2003." The gap between economic classes is widening and creating a visible divide in America.
He also notes from the 2000 U.N. Development Report that the "richest 200 people [in the world] have assets more than $1 trillion," and that the "top three billionaires have more than the combined assets of the world's poorest 600 million people."
At Bowdoin, this gap is present, though it is not always outwardly noticeable on campus. It is felt on a student-by-student basis. While "wealth is certainly not polarizing for the faculty," said Levine, there are some students "who have felt uncomfortable in the general atmosphere of wealth at the college."
Because wealth is often difficult to discern from looks alone, whenever discussions focus around high-class activities, it is impossible to know who might be feeling ostricized and uncomfortable.
"[Less wealthy students] can't do things all the things and they haven't done all the things" that wealthy students have, Levine said. "People talk about the last time they went skiing in Switzerland or something and these people haven't been out of Maine or New York City. There's a different environment, and for some people it is uncomfortable," he added.
One first year has yet to encounter any discomfort as a result of wealth "because there is a growing undercurrent of financially-challenged Bowdoin students that takes pride in being from a less fortunate background."
However, another first year admits that she has "been surprised by wealth at Bowdoin." In this new environment, certain situations regarding wealth have shocked her and made her realize that she "didn't know kids existed that had that much money."
Many Bowdoin students, including those wealthy from birth, Bandy said, "can find themselves struggling to be included in what they perceive to be Bowdoin's high-status cultures among students, faculty, or alumni. These students consistently have discussed with me how they feel external to, not a part of, the campus community. Unfortunately, many on campus support this intimidating environment unwittingly by highlighting the role of the college in recruiting and educating the elite."
He admits, through observation, that students, faculty, and alumni want to think that we create leaders. As a result, Bandy believes that this mentality can create a culturally-intimidating environment.
When some people hear "Bowdoin College," they feel an instantaneous distancing from this "elite culture." Other top institutions are viewed just like Bowdoin?as elevated educational factories that do present sometimes intimidating atmospheres. As a result, the average American may feel detached from such schools, and have no intention of penetrating elite society, either for social or economic reasons.
"[Bowdoin is] in tune with the economic diversity of private, small colleges in the Northeast. I mean, a college is expensive...and the poorer working class people just don't want to mostly take on that financial burden," Levine said.
He acknowledges that for some, financially, NESCAC and Ivy League schools are simply unattainable. This "off-limits" feeling is helping to further what Bandy describes as the class divide in society.
For many students, wealth is an issue not because they feel awkward about it, but instead because they want it. Even though all students have class work to do, many find time and are eager to work a campus job. Last year, 1,188 students had a job on campus?more than 70 percent of the enrollment of the college. Of those 1,188 students, only 55 percent were on financial aid.
According to Joyce, these somewhat shocking figures show that "not every student who is on aid is working...45 percent of the paychecks are going to students who are technically not on aid, which means (a) there's a value to the work, (b) students perhaps like to have a little financial independence from their families, and (c) that many families are saying, 'You know, you're getting a great education, it's very expensive, you need to pull your own weight a little bit.'"
In that population of student workers who were on aid, the average earnings expectation from the student employment office was $1,600, with the actual average yearly earning slightly less. The hourly wage for all student workers ranged from an introductory salary of $6.75 up to $10. Salaries increase with number of years worked and level of responsibility (for example, a food service manager gets paid more than a card swiper).
For a student to work all four years of college would mean a significant aggregate income coming directly from the College itself. These funds, and money in general, are becoming a vital element of completing college due to rising tuition.
Los Angeles Times writer Peter Y. Hong reported in an October 19 article entitled, "Financial Aid Can't Keep Up With College Tuition," that the College Board stated "students's chances of attending college and finishing with a degree increasingly are linked to their families' income."
The College Board's research showed that while financial aid is increasing, college tuition is increasing at an even greater rate. And while tuition continues to rise, Bowdoin appears to be increasingly accommodating for its students, as it tries to maintain sufficient aid to provide all accepted students the means to graduate.
College Board President Gaston Caperton, in a College Board Press Release dated October 18, said, "Socio-economic status and college success cannot be separated from the serious problem of unequal academic opportunity within our schools." Even though across the United States, economic backgrounds are handicapping college students, Bowdoin is making a conscious effort to avoid this national trend.
Such socio-economic problems are unfortunately increasingly constant in society. Bandy notes that resolving class conflict is difficult in that there is little or no open and honest public dialogue between the classes, there is little class solidarity among the working classes, there is little class consciousness in general, and these issues are a source of shame, fear, and anxiety for many.
Is it possible that these emotions are present in Bowdoin students due to a lack of discussion about such issues and the lack of attention that they attract? By not attacking issues of wealth in a public manner, is Bowdoin creating more tension and discomfort?
In the past, Bowdoin has "gone through cycles where students actually got very active on issues of class," reports Joyce. He believes that while class and wealth are not issues readily discussed, "that will...be the next pressing issue. It's going to present itself in terms of access to the college, in terms of financial aid...it's going be an issue that the deans spend more time with...The pressing issue is going to be much more one of class and socio-economic background than it will be race or culture in the next few years."
If wealth is in fact the "next pressing issue," discomfort and polarization will eventually have no place at Bowdoin.