LEWISTON — Fed up with ever-increasing costs for tuition and room and board, some Bates College students are calling on the liberal arts college to cancel a planned 3.4% increase that would set a $71,388 price tag next year.

That is nearly 40% more than the college cost a decade ago, a contrast to the University of Maine system that has nudged its price up slightly over the same period.

Unless Bates wants to cater solely to the wealthy, said sophomore William Hibbitts, it has to stop raising prices so much.

He said that by Sunday night 303 students had signed an online petition he created opposing the increase. The petition insisted that rising costs pose a financial hardship for some and threaten the college’ economic, racial and geographic diversity.

Bates College sophomore William Hibbitts kicked off a protest against tuition hikes with an online petition last week. Sun Journal photo by Steve Collins

The college, though, shows no sign of reversing course.

In a statement issued Friday in response to the petition, Bates said, “We fully understand that the cost of college is a significant concern for students and their families, and this concern is constantly front of mind for Bates and its board of trustees.”

Bates pointed out that it is “the fifth largest private employer in Androscoggin County, and more than 60% of our operating budget is devoted to attracting and retaining a talented faculty and staff,” including wages and benefits.

“Where we can manage increases, we do,” the college said, “However, some fast-growing line items, such as health insurance premiums and pressures in the labor market, are beyond the college’s control.”

For Hibbitts, that is not reason enough to hike the college’s price tag beyond the inflation rate.

“It is as if the administration wants to confirm the stereotype that Bates is a school for rich white New Englanders,” his petition said.

Hibbitts said the four-year college “is going to be a playground for elites if the tuition keeps going up, up and up.”

Bates said Friday it has “a longstanding commitment to access to higher education for students from a wide range of backgrounds” and dedicates a third of its operating budget to financial aid grants.

Bates President A. Clayton Spencer, in a message to students and parents Tuesday, said the college understands that “a Bates education is a substantial investment” so it works “to maintain a very tight operating budget that ensures an excellent student experience inside and outside the classroom.”

Average college prices are rising much faster at private colleges than at most of the publics, the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2018 report found.

While Spencer did not explain the necessity of an increase, she did point out that Bates provides extensive financial aid and, “consistent with Bates’ founding tradition of inclusivity,” meets “the full demonstrated need of every student receiving aid.”

There is growing pressure across the country for public and private colleges to clamp down on tuition and fees that had generally soared for decades. Many have hit the brakes on big increases.

The College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2018 report found that tuition and fees at most colleges and universities were about the same in each of the last two years after taking inflation into account. It also found that higher education prices rose “much more slowly” during the past five years than they did in the preceding ones.

The University of Maine System froze tuition for six years after the last recession and continues to hold increases for tuition to no more than the inflation rate. As a result, in-state tuition and fees have increased less than 1 percent over the past five years for UMaine students.

About one in four students in the University of Maine System pays nothing for tuition and fees, and others have benefited from a shift toward more grants and fewer loans, a response to the debt problems facing many college graduates.

Bates is an especially generous college when it comes to financial aid. It offers grants and loans to about 43 percent of its students in a mix that leaves few with significant debts after graduation. Its average grant is nearly $45,000.

But students signing the petition worry there “are no guarantees” for ongoing financial aid that makes up for the rising price of attending Bates.

Moreover, the petition says, “it is no simple task for students and their families to find” an extra $1,000 more every year to cover “the alarming increasing cost” of attending Bates.

The signers demanded the college cancel the tuition hike, offer more grants for financial aid, freeze tuition levels for each incoming class so they would pay the same for four years and provide an accounting on how Bates spends the money it takes in.

Hibbitts said students “don’t want to be ignored,” and are willing to talk with administrators about the issues surrounding the “out-of-control” costs of college.

Among the colleges with which Bates typically compares itself, especially other members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference, it appears the Lewiston institution’s price hike is not out of line.

Colby College in Waterville and Trinity College in Connecticut each set a 3.7% increase, while Middlebury College in Vermont and Williams College in Massachusetts are each eyeing a 3.3% increase next year. Wesleyan University in Connecticut is set to hike costs 4.4%.

Students at Tufts University in Massachusetts, another NESCAC school, protested a 3.7% tuition hike last spring. The college did not back off from the increase.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.