As Boston-area college administrations break a wall of silence on tuition, Emerson stays quiet


Andrew Brinker

A view of Emerson’s campus buildings from the Boylston St. sidewalk.

As Boston-area colleges and universities begin to quietly peddle out details on tuition and housing costs for the impending fall semester, Emerson’s administration has remained silent.

After months of nervous anticipation from students, the college announced its reopening plan, entitled “One Emerson Flex Learning,” in the beginning of June. The plan left a number of questions unanswered. But since the announcement, a picture of what the fall semester will look like has become clearer, with a plan to use an alternating class format in place.

However, one of the biggest details still missing from the portrait of a complicated semester is tuition costs.

Most colleges plan to accomodate students through hybrid models that combine both physical and remote instruction amid the rapidly accelerating COVID-19 pandemic. Under those plans, students will be brought back to campus in an effort to continue the teaching that has earned schools’ accreditation and minimize the massive fiscal losses they are bracing for in the coming semester (Emerson projects up to $76 million in fall semester losses). 

A number of area schools—including Boston University, Suffolk University, Northeastern University, Emmanuel College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst—have indicated what students felt to be inevitable for months. Tuition rates will not be lowered in the fall. Those details have been seemingly hidden from the public eye, tucked into corners of branded reopening websites or at the bottom of lengthy community-wide emails.

Several other institutions, like Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston College, and Endicott College, have not made official announcements, but tuition rates listed on their websites for the 2020-21 academic year have not been lowered. Instead, most have increased. Only Berklee College of Music has announced plans to decrease costs for the fall.

Just two local schools—Emerson College and UMass Boston—have yet to address fall semester costs and have no information available on their websites. Instead, Emerson has responded to repeated interview requests from The Beacon with the same sentiment Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Jim Hoppe offered weeks ago.

I don’t have a lot of details to share right now in terms of tuition and costs,” he said in a phone interview when the plan was first announced. 

The college has not responded to the Beacon regarding tuition since that interview.

Emerson’s plan, announced about a month ago, draws a few unique distinctions from other Boston-area college and universities’ models. 

The college will operate under what administration has dubbed an alternating class format. While in-person classes will begin again in the fall, courses will alternate between online and physical instruction on a week-to-week basis. For example, a course scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays will meet once in person and once remotely every week, pushing nearly half of the fall semester online. 

Emerson will also shift the final two weeks of classes, along with finals, online, in anticipation of a potential second wave of COVID-19 that leading epidemiologists initially predicted would hit sometime in the fall

The plan has been met with spirited pushback from the community, as faculty have contended in multiple meetings with administrators that in-person teaching will put professors at risk of serious health consequences.

The two faculty unions—the Emerson College Chapter of the American Association of University Professors and the Affiliated Faculty of Emerson College—both overwhelmingly voted in favor of giving all faculty the option to teach remotely, Visual and Media Arts Professor Tom Cooper told The Beacon. 

President M. Lee Pelton said a hybrid model was the best way for the college to ensure the safety of its students. 

“We felt [One Emerson Flex Learning] was the best way to ensure safety,” Pelton said in a faculty assembly meeting two weeks ago. “I hope that [faculty] will see how all the actions that we have taken and plan to take will contribute to the safety of our community and build confidence in those who work, live, and study here.”

BU, Northeastern, and Boston College—institutions with considerably larger endowments at their disposal—have all elected to forgo an alternating class format. Instead, they will pursue models that conduct most courses in-person, with the stipulation that students can choose to be partially or fully remote. Students that elect to attend courses online will attend physical classes synchronously through video and streaming technologies. 

Some schools, like Northeastern, will offer students the option of attending classes remotely at any time throughout the semester. UMass Amherst will give students the option to come to campus, but most classes will be conducted remotely, with the exception of labs and those that require hands-on instruction. MIT expects to bring less than 60 percent of students back to campus and conduct all courses remotely that “can be taught effectively online.” 

The combination of in-person instruction with the option of synchronous remote learning offers those institutions a justification for full tuition rates—an opportunity BU, Northeastern, and UMass Amherst have seized. BU has also indicated that it won’t refund tuition if all classes are shifted online should the pandemic suddenly worsen in Boston.

Boston College, BU, and Northeastern, as of publication, have also not announced a shortened in-person semester.

Suffolk University, a school similar in enrollment and location to Emerson, has already indicated that tuition rates will not be lowered for the upcoming semester, despite having no finalized reopening model.

BU, Boston College, Suffolk University, and UMass Amherst did not return repeated requests for comment.

While the variety of hybrid models set to be used in the fall will see some students return to the classroom, the chorus of voices calling for Emerson to reduce tuition and room and board rates is growing. 

Some, like newly-elected Student Government Association President Claire Rodenbush, have taken to social media to demand lowered costs under a hybrid model, encouraging students to protest if rates are not reduced.

“On one hand, I am glad we get to return to campus in some capacity,” she said in a phone interview. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of things that [the announcement] still leaves unanswered, mainly financially, which I’m sure is the biggest question on everyone’s mind because this does not at all address that, and that’s my biggest concern.”

Rodenbush is just one of many students arguing on social media that online classes, a key part of most reopening plans, don’t offer the same quality of education as in-person instruction.

“It is concerning as a student to not hear the concrete,” Diego Torres, a rising senior and marketing major, said in a phone interview. ”I know a lot of people don’t feel comfortable paying a traditional full semester’s worth of tuition if the experience they’re going to receive does not reflect a traditional full semester.”

Torres said the differences between Emeron’s plan and other area reopening models, specifically the college’s planned half semester of online classes, means a reduced tuition rate is not just preferred—but necessary.

“The experience we’re going to be getting, it’s not going to be the same, and I just don’t see how [Emerson] can justify charging full tuition,” Torres said. “We’re not getting a full semester in person, and the experience or quality of life is not going to be comparable to what it was like in previous semesters.”