LEWISTON – A foundation is offering to match up to $50 million for a new Bates College initiative to enroll more students from the nation’s poorest families and undocumented immigrants.

“This is a game changer for Bates,” President Clayton Spencer said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

The college’s director of admissions and financial aid, Leigh Weisenburger, called it “an exhilarating moment” for the college.

The challenge grant from the Schuler Access Initiative will create a $100 million financial aid expansion to help support students who are low-income or undocumented to attend the highly regarded liberal arts college.

Bates said it has already raised $30 million in matching gifts and pledges from its donors, so it needs $20 million more during the next five years to maximize the funding.

Bates is one of four colleges and a university selected for the dollar-for-dollar match from the Schuler Education Foundation, which says its aim is to increase the percentage of the targeted students by 2 to 6 percentage points.

The initiative said it aims “to dramatically increase the number of undocumented and Pell-eligible students at America’s top liberal arts colleges” by funding colleges willing to pledge that they’ll enroll more undocumented and low-income students.

“What better investment could there be for this country than to invest in undocumented students,” the program’s co-founder, 81-year-old Jack Schuler, said in a prepared statement. “Immigrants have historically displayed optimism and ambition in the decision to leave home for America.”

The son of a Swiss immigrant whose father came to the United States in 1927, Schuler said he sees the same sort of drive among undocumented and low-income students today, many of them first generation or children of first-generation immigrants.

“A liberal arts education is unique to the United States and has proven to be a great foundation for success in post-graduate studies,” Schuler said. “You become a citizen of the world with a liberal arts education. You become a better doctor or lawyer or engineer with the fundamentals of a liberal arts education.”

Bates was among the first colleges picked for the initiative because it is highly selective, meets all financial needs for its students and is willing to collaborate with other schools to improve the program.

Spencer said the money will allow Bates to increase the number of low-income and undocumented  immigrant students by 50% in coming decades.

“It will allow us to attract talented and ambitious students who bring a wide range of perspectives and life experiences to their education, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college,” Spencer said.

Weisenburger said recently that with its high sticker price — currently $75,720 for tuition, room and board — some students are scared of the cost of attending Bates and other elite schools. It’s a challenge to get them to dig deeper and realize that generous financial aid often makes otherwise costly colleges more affordable than other options, she said.

Having more money to hand out will help Bates’ ability to expand its pool of applicants and attract more first-generation students, officials said.

John Gillespie, chairman of the college’s board of trustees, said in a prepared statement that “there is no doubt it will be transformative, not just for the individuals it touches, but for this institution” to receive such a large donation.

Bates provides $39 million in need-based financial aid grants to about 45% of its students, with the average grant totaling $49,000 annually. Students from the poorest families receive enough to attend without taking out huge student loans.

Weisenburger, who is also vice president for enrollment, said in a prepared statement that “Bates has long recognized that ambitious students of limited means are systematically underserved by the structures of higher education” and has worked to help improve the situation.

“We have acted on this reality by devoting a significant proportion of our resources to need-based financial aid,” she said. “Still, every day we are reminded of how urgent the need remains to identify and welcome talented students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.”

The other institutions picked for the first round of the foundation’s initiative are Carleton College in Northfield, Minnestoa, Kenyon in Gambier, Ohio, and Union College in  Schenectady, New York, and Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

The foundation said it plans to fund programs at up to 20 top colleges and universities, pumping $500 million into them.


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