The quickest and soundest way to grow Maine’s economy and attract new people to the state is to focus on the assets we have, not the ones we wish we had.

For many years, Maine has considered various ways to recharge its economy, but it has largely skipped over three institutions with incredible strength and the ability to grow: Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges.

Situated in one remote corner of the country with a small and aging population, Maine has been disadvantaged by the evisceration of the once sizable and stable paper industry and the shortage of other large, high-wage anchor businesses.

Instead of looking to new economic engines, we should refocus on existing enterprises we do not commonly think of as “industries.”

Bates, Bowdoin and Colby are prominent and prestigious economic engines that exist in Maine, which receive no subsidy from the state but provide employment for over 3,000 people. They are three of the most under-appreciated economic engines in Maine.

Almost all their revenue comes from three sources: tuition, philanthropy and endowment, and most of that revenue comes from out of state. Tuition, including room and board, a predictable source of funding, costs $75,720 a year at Bates, $74,220 a year at Bowdoin, and $76,965 a year at Colby. Fundraising is less predictable and is largely driven by college sponsored campaigns and initiatives. The third factor, the endowment, is one that has reached unprecedented values for Maine – with Bates at $341 million, Bowdoin at $1.8 billion and Colby at just over $1 billion. At a 5 percent spending rate, these endowments alone generate over $150 million annually to the three schools.

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The operating budgets of each college are also substantial, aggregating approximately $500 million combined, and most of those budgets goes toward payroll for Maine residents. Bowdoin has made this a priority and in 2019, the college alone generated $58.3 million in payroll to Brunswick and area residents. Colby has put its specific funding toward community revitalization efforts in downtown Waterville, which is now home to a new hotel, arts collaborative and studio office spaces. Clearly, each institution has the potential to be extremely influential in talent development and attraction for Maine’s future workforce.

Bates has 2,000 students, Bowdoin has 1,835 students and Colby has 2,003 students, which results in around 1,500 graduates annually. If we could figure out a way to persuade these institutions to increase their enrollment, it would not only increase their payrolls to Maine residents by expanding the faculty and staff needed for the larger student population, but also provide a greater pool of talented workers potentially entering the Maine job force upon graduation.

There is a clear demand for this kind of expansion given how hard it is to gain acceptance to any of the three schools. Others among the wealthy New England small colleges, such as Wesleyan and Tufts, are substantially larger than Bates, Bowdoin and Colby. The endowment at Tufts supports almost 6,000 students and is only slightly larger than Bowdoin’s. Wesleyan supports 3,000 students with its endowment of $1.1 billion, so this idea should not affect the educational, social or athletic quality of the small liberal arts schools.

We are aware that Bates, Bowdoin and Colby have studied expansion and have decided, at least for the time being, to remain small with the hope of preserving their quality of education. However, when Dartmouth decided to expand in the early 1900s, it both increased the school’s credibility and prestige while providing immense financial support to the town of Hanover, New Hampshire. As the schools continue to become more nationally recognized for their educational reputation, isn’t it time to consider offering enrollment to more students? While we are in no position to tell the schools how they should proceed, this idea of expanding the student body seems worth considering.

The communities of Lewiston, Brunswick and Waterville would benefit enormously, but so would the greater Maine economy with the influx of more Maine-educated and highly qualified workers. Bates, Bowdoin and Colby are prestigious, well-respected economic powerhouses. As the state looks to improve its economy, we should examine ways we can partner together to build on these incredible assets.

— Special to the Telegram


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