Director of Student Aid Michael Bartini defended the College’s financial aid policy following the publication of a college access and affordability index by the New York Times’  The Upshot blog. In it, Bowdoin performed only slightly above average.

Bartini said that Bowdoin remains deeply committed to financial aid, not only for low-income students, but also for middle- and upper-middle class students.

“In a broad sense we want to make sure that we can make Bowdoin affordable to anyone who’s admitted,” he said.

The College Access Index included colleges with four-year graduation rates of 75 percent or higher. It calculated a score based on two factors—the percentage of students who received federal Pell grants over the last three years, and the net price paid in 2012-2013 by low-income households, defined as those  with annual incomes between $30,000 and $48,000.

At Bowdoin, according to the New York Times, 13 percent of students receive Pell grants and the net price for low-income households is $8,900. Forty-five schools outperformed Bowdoin in the index, including peer institutions Amherst, Haverford, Pomona, Vassar, Wesleyan and Williams.

Since the index considered a narrow income range and statistics related to Pell grants—the vast majority of which are awarded to students from households earning less than $50,000 per year—it does not represent college access and affordability for students across the economic spectrum.

The New York Times admitted that its index has limitations.

“The biggest downside of using the Pell grant as a measure is that it treats students just above the threshold as no different from affluent students,” wrote David Leonhardt, who helped create the index. “A college that enrolls many students from families making $75,000 a year may be somewhat more economically diverse than a college with an identical share of Pell recipients but fewer middle-income students.”

Bowdoin is one of a very small number of colleges and universities that meets 100 percent of demonstrated financial need without loans for all students. Many of the colleges that outperform Bowdoin in the index do not make the same guarantee. Vassar, the highest-ranking school in the index, only guarantees a financial aid package without loans for students from households making less than $60,000 a year, according to the Education Portal.

Students on both the low and high ends of the income spectrum qualify for and receive loan-free financial aid packages at Bowdoin, according to Bartini.

“There are an awful lot of students who are applying for and qualifying for financial aid with family incomes that, quite frankly, are in the six-digit range,” said Bartini. “So you make $150,000, so you make $200,000—if you’ve got two kids at a Bowdoin-like school, that’s pretty difficult.”

Bartini said the College does not have a plan to increase the percentage of students who receive Pell grants.

“I think when you look at the numbers for Pell [grant] recipients, you say to yourself, ‘Oh maybe not so bad, but not so great,’” Bartini said. “But the truth of the matter is that we have lots of students who receive financial aid whose family incomes are quite low. They’re not eligible for Pell [grants], but they’re still going to have trouble without receiving resources.”
According to Bartini, 23 percent of Bowdoin students come from households with annual incomes under $45,000—but not all of them qualify for Pell grants.

Kyle Nowak ’15, who pays for his own education, receives a full Pell grant. After factoring in Bowdoin financial aid grants and government grants, he is left to pay just under $5,000 this year.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate—I still have loans—but compared to what it would have been if I went to another school I have significantly fewer loans,” Nowak said.

Some of the financial aid packages that Nowak received from other schools would have required him to pay twice or even three times as much per year.

Nowak said that his aid package has always been fair and that he is grateful for Bowdoin’s support, but questioned the way the College pitches its financial aid program.

“Bowdoin does a lot of broadcasting that we’re a need-based, no-loans school, and there really should be an asterisk by ‘no loan,’” he said.

Bartini said that the no-loans policy means that the College will meet full need without loans, but that families decide for themselves how to pay their share of the cost.

“Some families say to themselves, what’s the best way for me to finance my share, and that’s when they look at student loans or parent loans—because in their particular circumstance it might make the most sense,” he said.

Nowak said that he does see some value in taking out student loans.

“I think taking out a loan is a good thing,” he said. “You need to learn about interest and understand how you need to pay it back and have that responsibility—because you’re going to encounter that a lot in life.”

During high school, Nowak was preparing to travel to New England to visit several Ivy League universities when he received a call from Dave Caputi, head coach of the football team. It was the first time that Nowak had heard of Bowdoin. He said that he thinks the College can do more to reach out to low-income high school students.

“Back home in Minnesota, most people didn’t know what Bowdoin was—the people who knew were people that were affluent,” he said.