It costs $61,354 to attend Bowdoin this year. As the comprehensive fee crosses $60,000 for the first time, the milestone is an opportunity to explore the long-term questions the College faces about affordability for students and its own financial sustainability. 

Without adjusting for inflation, the fee has more than doubled in the last 20 years: the comprehensive fee charged for the 1995-1996 academic year was $26,500. In 2015 dollars, that is equal to $43,637; the increase to $61,354 amounts to a 41 percent fee increase after adjusting for inflation. 

The basics of Bowdoin’s story are common, both among its private liberal arts peers and colleges and universities more generally: tuition and administrative fees have increased dramatically at institutions across the country. However, certain factors make the rising costs of a Bowdoin education and the College’s response unique. 

The roots of increasing costs

Unlike many larger universities, whose budget increases are often due in large part to increasing costs of research, the vast majority of Bowdoin’s annual budget is devoted to the salaries and benefits of the College’s faculty and staff—those figures account for 63 percent of this year’s budget. 

Thus, as the College adds new positions and the costs of benefits such as health care increase, many see few ways to prevent rising costs.

“This is a really people-driven product,” Director of Student Aid Michael Bartini said of what Bowdoin offers. “Unless the product changes, somehow we’ve got to be able to manage this.”
Financial aid, another area where spending has increased dramatically in recent years, accounts for another 23 percent of spending. The remaining 15 percent is dedicated to a variety of expenses like utilities, equipment and travel costs.

“With 85 percent of one’s cost structure being embedded in people and financial aid, it’s a real challenge to figure out,” said President Clayton Rose. “It’s very hard to dramatically impact the increase in cost or the absolute cost by fiddling around with [the other] 15 percent.”

Determining the comprehensive fee

As with most colleges, Bowdoin’s endowment subsidizes every student to an extent. For the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the College’s budget worked out to about $81,000 per student, or about $20,000 more than what students without financial aid paid. 

Schools have some discretion in choosing how much they ask students to pay because of this subsidy from their endowment. Some schools charge one fee for all of their students. Bates, for example, simply charges one fee of $62,540, without publicizing the individual costs for things such as room and board. Bowdoin, on the other hand, does not have an official comprehensive fee. Instead, the figure can be disaggregated into several individual costs: tuition ($47,744), fees ($468), room ($6,142) and board ($7,000). 

Despite this, Bowdoin does pay significant attention to the total comprehensive fee.
“The discussion of the comprehensive fee is very sensitive. We take it really seriously,” said Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration & Treasurer Katy Longley. “We spend a lot of time on trying to strike that balance between what’s the right amount to charge and what’s affordable.”

Over the past 20 years, the fee has increased by an average of about 4.3 percent annually; for the past five years, the College has held that figure steady at three percent. This is a slower rate than the growth of the College’s overall budget and the financial aid budget (which grew four percent and six percent from FY 2015 to FY 2016, respectively). 

The result is that the proportion of the budget covered by endowment returns is increasing slightly. With the endowment returning 14 percent this year, this appears to be a viable strategy, but the long-term implications are less clear. 

Longley emphasized that the College works year-by-year to determine the fee.
“There’s no ten-year plan of what the comprehensive fee should be. There are certain assumptions in the budget, and we’ll model those out, but there’s no magic number,” said Longley.

The process of choosing how much to charge is, in part, an evaluation of the College’s costs and families’ ability to pay; however, peer schools also play a key role. Antitrust law prevents colleges from communicating about their current fees or salaries, but comparisons from past years are a factor in determining the comprehensive fee.

“We do look at what other colleges have charged—not that it necessarily influences us, but we are mindful of what others are doing,” said Longley. 

In a group that the College uses to evaluate its fees including the rest of the NESCAC (except for Tufts) and other peer schools such as Oberlin and Swarthmore, Bowdoin’s comprehensive fee ranked third-lowest of 19 for FY 2015-2016. Its percentage increase for the same year tied for fourth. 

What’s more, Bowdoin’s comprehensive fee is growing comparatively cheaper: in FY 2011-2012 it ranked eighth, while the percentage increase ranked second.

Comprehensive fee as a symbol

Of course, with financial aid, Bowdoin students pay a wide variety of amounts to attend. Financial aid expansion has been a top priority at Bowdoin in recent years. In 2008, Bowdoin announced the elimination of all student loans, replacing them with grants. Today, about 46 percent of Bowdoin’s endowment is dedicated to financial aid. With financial aid spending increasing at a faster rate than the ever-rising comprehensive fee, Bowdoin is prioritizing accessibility to all students.

In spite of affordability in practice, a continually increasing comprehensive fee can be an intimidating message. It is difficult to quantify how many students are discouraged by the sticker price, but without a clear understanding of Bowdoin’s financial aid, some prospective students are likely turned off from the idea of attending Bowdoin.

 “We know from our experience that we are meeting a significant number of students who are worried about the cost,” said Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Scott Meiklejohn. “When you can actually meet with those people and speak with them, you can accomplish something and tell them about Bowdoin financial aid. If they never get as far as meeting us or asking the questions, you don’t have that same opportunity.”  

As a result, promoting the idea that Bowdoin is affordable and need-blind has been a major goal for the Admissions office.

“I don’t see difficulty in Bowdoin affording the financial aid expense for the students enrolled,” said Meiklejohn. “I think the bigger challenge is communicating the strength of financial aid program to students and parents who may be considering.”

 Financial Sustainability

Making Bowdoin affordable has continued to be an important issue in face of rising costs.
“I think the big thing right now for us to think about is how we slow the rate of growth [of the comprehensive fee],” said Rose. “People need raises every year, healthcare costs are going up every year, we need to be sensitive to the needs of our staff and our faculty. But what can we do to slow the rate of growth down?”

With 85 percent of the budget devoted to financial aid and faculty payroll, the short-term options are limited. This year the budget for financial aid will be around $34.4 million, about six percent up from last year, according to the College’s operating budget for FY 2015-2016.
 Approximately 44.5 percent of the student body is on financial aid, which is funded by the endowment fund and alumni giving. The College draws a significant amount from the endowment for financial aid every year, and financial aid tops the list of categories of alumni gifts.

With all these various factors coming into play, it is uncertain how much the comprehensive fee will increase in the future.

“We’re going to be really digging into this in the months and years ahead here,” said Rose. “It’s a really important issue. A middle class family that is doing just fine—two parents that are working good jobs, if they’ve got one child or two children in college—those tuition bills, that becomes untenable, even at a very good middle class living. So that’s an interesting social question.”