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A President Looks at New Ways to Help Financially Needy Applicants

The Honorable Sheila C. Bair

(The Chronicle of Higher Education) – Sheila C. Bair is widely credited as being one of the earliest high-ranking government officials to sound the alarm about the lending tactics and financial products that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

Now the former chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has set her sights on another area of the financial sector: student debt.

As the new president of Washington College, a liberal-arts institution in Maryland, she has made college affordability her top priority.

Ms. Bair says she is concerned about the state of the economy that college students are entering.

“If I can just make a little dent in that by helping the students who go here expand their job prospects and reduce their debt, I want to do that,” she says.

She recently announced a tuition freeze for the next academic year and has created a scholarship program called George’s Brigade, which offers full scholarships to high-performing, financially needy applicants, and allows such applicants from the same community to be admitted as a group so that they can support one another in adjusting to college.

In August, Ms. Bair became the first female president in the college’s 233-year history. But while that milestone was a long time coming, her hiring happened quickly.

She first learned of the position last spring when she called her friend Rebecca W. Rimel, president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, for advice about a different academic position.

Ms. Bair had worked at Pew after leaving the FDIC and both women also own homes near the Washington College campus in Chestertown.

Ms. Rimel, a former member of the college’s Board of Visitors, mentioned that the college was looking for a new leader. Within a few weeks, Ms. Bair had spoken with the search committee and was hired for the position.

But while her hiring process went smoothly, she encountered a major challenge a few months into her presidency.

In mid-November, Ms. Bair evacuated the campus and ordered it shut through Thanksgiving week, after a troubled student who had been suspended from the college earlier that semester was reported by his parents as missing and armed.

The sophomore student, Jacob Marberger, was found dead five days later of what the police described as a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Ms. Bair says that it breaks her heart that the college was not able to prevent Mr. Marberger’s death, but that she has no regrets about her decision to evacuate and close the campus.

“Based on what we knew,” she says, “we just couldn’t take any chances.” — Ben Wieder

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