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President Barry Mills leaves a legacy of financial aid expansion

When President Barry Mills departs from the College in July after 14 years, he will leave behind a legacy of increased access to Bowdoin and a more diverse student body, something he accomplished through a dramatic expansion of the College’s financial aid program.

During his first year as president in 2001, the College awarded $13,870,759 (adjusted for inflation) in need-based financial aid to 627 students, according to the College’s Common Data Set. This year, Bowdoin provided $29,739,519 in institutional aid to 803 students, meaning that at the end of Mills’ tenure, the College both offers a larger average grant and provides grants to more students. Mills said that those rising numbers reflect his longstanding belief that financial aid is essential to the future of the College. 

“It’s been at the heart and soul of my commitment to the College since the day I came,” said Mills.

Indeed, as early as his October 27, 2001 inaugural address, Mills had identified expanding access and supporting students with need as one of the biggest challenges Bowdoin faced.

“Our continued commitment to a strong financial aid program will ensure that students from rural Maine, and students from poor neighborhoods in New York City and Los Angeles, and even some not-so-wealthy students from Rhode Island will be able to come here to learn,” he said that day. 

Mills himself was once one of those not-so-wealthy students from Rhode Island. His father had not finished the 10th grade, yet with the help of financial aid, Mills matriculated at Bowdoin and graduated in 1972. As he sees it, expanding access to Bowdoin is an integral part of the College’s commitment to the common good. 

“If you want to think about the common good—the idea that you are creating opportunity for a student who wouldn’t have it otherwise is hugely important to me,” he said.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Scott Meiklejohn said that the College’s financial aid program has become one of its strongest selling points.

“I think his view of Bowdoin and what Bowdoin means as a college, why Bowdoin exists, is to provide opportunity, and so at the level of inspiration, that message is really important for us to be able to communicate,” he said.

Mills’ commitment to financial aid is not just a message for the Office of Admissions, however. It has a real impact on how Admissions operates.

“I’ve just been in northern California for a week, and there’s not one student I met there—including a group of students at a 100 percent first-generation school in East Palo Alto—there’s not one student I met where I have to express any reservation about their opportunity to come here, because Barry and others have ensured that we have the resources to hold the door open,” Meiklejohn said.

The no-loans policy

Mills has been able to oversee a dramatic expansion of financial aid largely because of his success as a fundraiser and the strong performances of Bowdoin’s endowment over the last decade.

“We were able to succeed partly because people recognized that what we were doing was important for the students, important for the future for the school,” Mills said, “and we were able to succeed because we were able to raise the money to do it and because the endowment grew.”

Mills said that donors came to recognize the importance of financial aid because it was a priority—something that he reminded them about repeatedly. He joked that he spoke about aid so often that he sounded “like a broken record.” Broken record or not, his was a tune that got stuck in donor’s heads.

“When I came I was told financial aid money is very hard to raise,” he said. “Interestingly I found financial aid money is the easiest money to raise, and in many cases I’ve had donors who we’ve asked to do other things who would have preferred to give money to financial aid.”

Fundraising successes allowed Mills to increase his goals for financial aid. When his presidency began, he spoke about the irresponsibility of abandoning the College’s need-blind admissions policy. Seven years later, he had a far more ambitious goal in mind: adopting a policy of meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need without loans.

Bowdoin announced its no-loans initiative in January 2008. At the time, it was one of the only colleges with an endowment of less than one billion dollars to commit to no loans. Mills had worked with members of the Board of Trustees to help them understand why it was the right choice for the College.

Meiklejohn said that Mills had led the push for the no-loans policy.

“At a time when the college had the resources to expand its financial aid support and to go no-loan and to throw even more energy and commitment to low-income, first-generation students, Barry was the right person to galvanize the community around that and push Bowdoin even further ahead,” he said.

The policy has made financial aid available to middle class families, many of whom struggle to afford college as its cost keeps rising. According to Meiklejohn, there are currently 433 students from households with incomes over $90,000 who receive financial aid—about half of all aid recipients. Mills said that there are families on the higher end of the economic spectrum—even those at the bottom of the one percent—who have difficulty paying for college and deserve support.

As the country went into a deep recession in late 2008, the expensive no-loans initiative was adding to the College’s financial stress, but Mills felt that it was a policy worth maintaining.

“I’m proud to say we maintained the no loans. We didn’t lay anybody off; everybody kept their jobs,” he said. “The College got through that period with a lot of shared sacrifice where faculty and staff agreed to freeze salaries for a couple of years in order to allows us to maintain our commitments both to our employees and to the students.”

Diversity

The no-loans policy has helped the College become a more diverse place, not only in terms of its socioeconomic composition, but also in terms of its geographic and racial composition.

According to the College’s Common Data Set, there were 50 black students, 50 Hispanic students and 1,295 white students enrolled during the 2001-2002 academic year. This year, 229 students identify as Hispanic, 88 as black, 1,147 as white, and 117 as non-Hispanic members of two or more races.

The College has also drawn more and more students from outside of New England, a trend that started before Mills’ tenure but has accelerated in recent years.

“The goal always was to make the school look like America—that meant racial diversity; that meant economic diversity; that meant diversity of view—and we succeeded in doing that to a point,” Mills said. “There’s always more work to be done.”

Mills said that these forms of diversity are important to the College’s mission to prepare its students to be leaders. He and Meiklejohn both said that after graduating, students will have to navigate a world where people have different viewpoints and backgrounds, and that a diverse student body is excellent preparation for that world.

“Creating a community that is more cosmopolitan, more diverse in the broadest sense, was essential, I think, to the future of the College,” Mills said. “We recognized that in order to bring people from different parts of the United States to the College, including racial diversity, we needed to put more money behind financial aid.”

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