Op-ed: Risking financial security for a coveted college education

Low-income students, like myself, frequently get put in a position where we must put aside our basic necessities, including toiletries and food, to attend Emerson. Low-income students, or those coming from households that make under $65,000 annually, across the country struggle to attain a college education and incorporate themselves into a community that may open doors for a better future.

While I do agree that college presents more possibilities for success, it only offers opportunities to those who can afford it. Low-income students see college as a stepping stone from poverty to a degree that will hopefully lead to financial success. But the only real way to afford this education is to submit to the inevitability of debt to cover tuition and miscellaneous fees required to attend a college. My parents have to prioritize paying their mortgage over sending me money. If I am lucky, they will send me $20 to last me a month or two.

It took a lot of financial saving to even pay for the $65 application fee. When I found out Emerson has one of the best undergraduate journalism programs in the country, I had to apply. My parents pushed me to follow my ambitions, despite how much my dream costed. And in the pursuit of happiness, I took the risk to come here. After I received my acceptance letter to Emerson in December 2017, I worked for months as a restaurant hostess to pay for the housing deposit, my plane ticket and baggage, new winter clothes, and dorm room essentials, all totaling around $1,500.

But now that I’m at Emerson as a first-year student, I worry if I can afford my next meal. Food is expensive in Boston—the cheapest items at restaurants usually cost $10–$12, so eating out or buying groceries fails to be an option for me and most low-income students. Emerson’s Semel Plan, the default meal plan included in room and board fees, only includes 101 swipes per semester. In addition, the plan only includes 650 board bucks, and there’s only so much you can buy at the Max Cafe. The Office of Student Success runs a Food Pantry program which does relieve some stress, but I don’t often use it out of fear that I am taking food away from someone who needs it even more than me. I have a credit card for food, but I also feel guilty using it since it’s just another bill my parents will have to pay.

Another huge stressor for low-income students is coming up with the money for books and other class materials. For the past two semesters, I charged over $300 to my credit card because I didn’t have enough money for textbooks, a required external hard drive, and school supplies such as reporters’ notebooks and pens.

Emerson does have the Student Assistance Fund, a program that aims to help students afford “indirect costs of attendance” such as books, printing and copying costs, film, developing, personal items, and transportation. According to Emerson’s website, these awards usually range from $10 to a few hundred dollars. But the online application is open to any student who needs aid for school materials and other related projects, and it is not dependent on one’s financial standing. I filled out an online application for the fund but never heard back—I assumed since the online application said someone would contact me if they could help me, and that no one contacted me, they were unable to help. This means that low-income students in need may sometimes get overlooked. For example, I reached out for $75 to pay for an external hard drive for my Digital Journalist class, but they never got back to me, and I ended up paying for it on my credit card.

When the weekend rolls around, I spend the majority of my time in my room because going out with friends requires extra money. In addition, I personally struggle with finding a way to transport myself. Uber and Lyft services are too expensive, and public transportation only goes so far and stops service at 12:30 a.m.

Even finding a job to help my financial burdens proved difficult. I applied to various jobs on campus at the beginning of the fall semester—I assumed I would get hired because I qualified for federal work study, a federally funded program intended to help students with the costs of college.

But after applying to six jobs and only interviewing for three—all of which I did not receive an offer for—I went to the Student Financial Services office to confirm that my work study money was not going to be revoked. My work study money was secure, but I inexplicably never landed an on-campus job to help my finances. I currently work as a dog walker through an app called Wag! This job doesn’t give me a stable income, and I still find myself struggling to cover major costs such as plane tickets home to North Carolina and school supplies.

While I primarily worry about paying for my college education for the next three years, fixing all of the problems low-income students face at Emerson should not be a responsibility of mine. Low-income students already have to figure out how to provide basic necessities for themselves during the school year—we simply cannot be burdened with solving a national, institutional problem.

Currently, Emerson isn’t bringing full awareness to this problem. The college’s efforts do not lessen the significant burdens of this institutional problem. Personally, I received a merit scholarship that covers less than half of my tuition, but I am already $43,000 in debt as a first-year, second semester student.

The first step to solving this problem is to talk to the students affected by it. Let them tell their stories and express potential solutions—I am just one voice out of many many low-income student voices Emerson needs to hear. If Emerson and other private institutions want to have an economically diverse student body, they must make their institutions more accessible for every student, specifically those of lower economic backgrounds. Most low-income students who wish to attend Emerson may have no option but to enroll at a more affordable institution, which would not benefit the college or the student.

 

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