Bates College first-year student William Hibbitts speaks against student debt and for tuition grants during the Bates Affordable Education Campaign rally on the Lewiston campus Friday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Sophomore Jaelene Perez, who comes from a low-income family in the South Bronx, said Friday she wonders at the end of each semester at Bates College whether she can afford to return.

She said she slogged through this entire academic year without buying a single textbook because she couldn’t afford them.

Perez said she worries she’ll wind up $30,000 or more in debt by the time she graduates, money she fears she “will never be able to pay off.”

Bates College students answer the question “Why does affordable education matter to you?” during Friday’s Bates Affordable Education Campaign rally on the Lewiston campus. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

That concern led her to join about 40 fellow students for a rally through the heart of the campus Friday, calling on the college to join a national movement to offer more grants to low-income students so none have to rely on loans to attend Bates.

That’s already the policy at the two Maine colleges Bates most often identifies with – Colby and Bowdoin – as well as dozens of other elite institutions across the country, including most of the New England Small College Athletic Conference in which Bates competes.

For Maddy Smith, the rally’s lead organizer, there’s no doubt Bates should follow the path that others have already blazed.

“We’re trying to push Bates in that direction,” Smith said.

“We need affordable education at Bates,” said first-year student Solaine Carter from Tucson, Arizona, who marched with others in the Bates Student Action group to press college administrators to do more.

Though Bates figures it costs $68,770 a year for a student to attend – enough to cover tuition, room, board, books and incidentals – many of its students wind up on the hook for much less.

The college says that 43 percent of its nearly 2,000 students receive need-based grants that average $42,804 each. Its financial aid grants represent about a third of the school’s annual operating budget.

Given that Bates has a much smaller endowment than most of its peers, its spending on financial aid is higher as a percentage of its wealth than all but a handful. It says that its students who take out loans typically graduate with a total debt of under $15,000, less than half the national average.

Emilio Valadez, a senior from San Antonio, Texas, said that Bates hasn’t done enough to eliminate the sorts of financial bottlenecks that can get in the way of student success.

Students said that in the short term, they would at least like to see the college take steps to ensure every student can afford textbooks, lab fees and art class costs. They also complained that the dining hall, known as the Commons, charges students for meals during breaks, something that’s hard on some.

Carter said the school is setting up a working group to see what could be done to tackle some of those issues.

Valadez said it’s possible that Bates doesn’t have enough money to do everything students are asking. But, he said, if that’s true it ought to adopt a financial transparency policy that would allow students and others to see exactly what choices administrators make when it comes to spending.

Bates at least ought to explain in detail why it can’t provide the grants that would allow low-income students to graduate without any debt, he said.

Katherine Cabral, a sophomore from Chelsea, Massachusetts, said she faced a struggle to afford Bates but wanted to attend because of its stated commitment to social justice. She said she’s frustrated that college officials want students “to stay in our lane” instead of ramping up the pressure for the school to do more.

Amanda Brea, a sophomore who is the first generation in her family to attend college, said she works three jobs to keep up with the costs – and doesn’t have anything left in her account by semester’s end.

“I shouldn’t be graduating with this much debt,” Brea said. She called on the college “to respect my needs” and those of people in the same financial condition.

For Perez, there’s an incongruity between the diversity that Bates likes to portray itself as possessing and the real-world struggle of its poorer students to keep up.

“We’re not just students for your Instagram” and for the school’s photographer to focus on, Perez said.

“I deserve to be at Bates,” Perez insisted, and to have every opportunity to succeed as well.

During the rally, students chanted slogans – from “Loan-free works for me” to “Education is a human right; that is why we have to fight” – as they marched along Alumni Walk and through Pettengill Hall.

They said they knew a rally won’t lead to reform, but it may nudge the college to renew its historic faith in justice.

Smith told fellow protesters to keep the pressure on.

“One rally is not enough to change all the structurally messed-up things that are happening at Bates College,” Smith said.

Cabral said, “We’ve got to hold Bates accountable.”