Abolish Bates (Sort of….)

In the last week, many of you have no doubt heard of some troubling news: Bates’ annual cost of attendance (including tuition, room, and board) has gone up to more than $71,000 a year. This situates us comfortably among the most expensive private universities in the country, right next to schools several times our population including Columbia and the University of Chicago.
But we knew that Bates was a terribly unequal place long before this announcement. A New York Times analysis on the economic demographics of U.S. universities found that the median family income among Bates students is about $227,000 a year. 76% of our student body come from the top fifth percentile of income in the U.S. (myself included), with 18% of those being from the top 1%. Meanwhile, only about 3% come from the bottom fifth.
This inequity has to stop. And I don’t mean that we need serious tuition reform and steps towards loan-free financial aid. We do need all those things, certainly, but I have come to believe that they won’t be enough. We need to think more radically about nationalizing Bates, Colby, Williams, Yale, Stanford, et al. We need to abolish the privatization of university education in this country.
Bates operates like any other profit-driven institution, and we students are essentially customers paying for a product in the hopes that it will ultimately be efficacious. Private universities are, quite frankly, based on the assumption that top-tier teaching and access to great works of knowledge from across civilizations are not and should not be openly accessible. We exclude so many potential students, the community of Lewiston, and the general population by charging tens of thousands of dollars for the universal good of education. And to what ends?
Many Bates students are saddled with years of debt and endless amounts of stress. Others enter the same system of establishment politics, finance, and bourgeois work that reproduces this oppressive system for the next generation. Rather than using their expertise to make effective social change by putting everything from chemistry to history to theatre into direct praxis, our professors can wind up stuck inside this insular environment. Outside of these ivy walls, thousands of students young and old across Maine struggle with artificial shortages of resources and disorganization.
There is no moral or political philosophy that can sufficiently justify why every member of this community is not entitled to the exact same education as us. The peoples of this country should not be excluded from the best forms of education any more than they should be excluded from the best forms of healthcare, housing, and labor conditions. And just as with healthcare and housing, private enterprise and liberal markets are too inefficient too often to be worth salvaging. The solution to this inequality is not to make Bates cheaper, but to get rid of Bates’ privatized apparatus altogether.
The resources, materials, and professors of private universities should stay intact, but we should turn these institutions into public universities. To quote a fellow Forum writer, Bates ought to join the ranks of Orono and Farmington as “The University of Maine-Lewiston.” Pettengill Hall, Commons, and the faculty would go nowhere, but Bates would become a public learning institution run by the state of Maine, accountable to local governments, funded directly through taxes (state and national), and cost thousands of dollars less for students.
I have no illusions that actually enacting this policy would not be immensely difficult to pass and implement (given the powers that be amidst the Board of Trustees). It would require takeover by state governments and the Department of Education after nationwide electoral referendums to revoke private college charters. Impossible though it may seem, let’s not forget that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have tuition-free public college and student loan forgiveness written into their 2020 campaigns.
Bates has given me the opportunities to become a journalist and an activist, and for that and many other things, I must thank this school endlessly. But my thanks are with reservations. Becoming an amateur journalist and activist has made me realize that the very hand that fed me was taking food from the malnourished, and complicity ignoring the starving. The time has come for us to open up the barriers that isolate our campuses and democratize higher education. And we will do it “with ardor and devotion”.