Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Do you even want us here?: Attending Emerson as a poor student

Courtesy of Maddie Barron.
Courtesy of Maddie Barron.

When Emerson announced its four percent tuition increase, the Emerson Student Union rightfully led the campaign to fight rising costs and lack of aid. My classmates shared infographics on social media about Emerson’s history of poor financial assistance and notoriously high costs, recently ranked as having the worst financial aid satisfaction in the country by the Princeton Review. 

The semester eventually ended, summer came and tuition hikes fizzled from most Emerson student’s minds. 

I did not have the luxury of forgetting. Instead, my summer was full of wrangling costs and re-evaluating my future over an amount that many students couldn’t care less about because they don’t touch their own finances with a 12-foot pole. Ultimately, I decided to return, but, truthfully, it feels like they don’t even want me back. 

In high school, I held on to the hope of a scholarship at my dream school, in a great program to escape the brutal cycle of poverty. A triumphant story of a first-generation student, funding her education on her own, and moving 1000 miles away from home. I was under the naive assumption that the biggest obstacle in the application process would be getting into Emerson. Since being here, though, the obstacles have yet to cease. 

When you’re poor, every single institution is designed to make you stay poor. The cycle of poverty is vicious and unrelenting. The lower class is expected to get on our knees and beg for any assistance—and even when we get it, it’s often inadequate. 

Most of the people I met at Emerson have generational wealth with supporting families to fund their education, housing, and even vacations. They’ve never filled out a FAFSA. A New York Times survey revealed 64 percent of Emerson students come from top 20 percent earners. The median family income is estimated to be $147,900. My family made a quarter of that this year.

All the while I am sitting at home, pausing my education, not pursuing my hobbies, working odd jobs to make money, and watching my classmates make something of themselves. They go to parties and cut class, unaffected by the risks of losing scholarships or high costs of tuition. They get to enjoy college. 

I’m incredibly bitter about it. Before turning 20, I’ve accrued work experience in cashiering, customer service, child care, education, marketing, writing, food service, and technology. None of my immediate friends worked for a living during the school year. Some had never worked at all. 

I made the difficult (and deservedly selfish) decision to stay at Emerson and come back in the spring of 2024. Early September, I began emailing every department at Emerson begging them to hear me out. I first spoke with the financial aid department and asked them how much more support I would get if I showed the several thousand dollar change to my family’s income after several hardships. I was ultimately given a meeting with one of Emerson’s financial counselors and was informed that I would not get that much more in aid after the appeal process. 

In the past few days since I filed to officially re-enroll, HRE re-informed me that students who take a leave of absence become non-guaranteed for housing. I had to sacrifice the human right to housing when I took the leave of absence to save enough money to allow my return to Emerson. I was under the impression that I would still go through the regular housing process, and if beds fill up too fast, I’m out of luck. 

Realistically, Emerson’s policy is that I apply for “non-guaranteed” housing and can make notes on my application of arrangements that I made with residents in Piano Row with a room vacancy, but ultimately those arrangements are irrelevant. I simply have to pick at the bone’s of Emerson’s residential carcass once everyone else has gotten to it first. Or I could fork out $4000 a month for a studio apartment. 

In a Monday email exchange with HRE, I was told to “first apply for housing … in this application you can note this vacancy, however, because you took a leave, you are considered a non-guarantee and would be placed for housing after guarantee students returning to campus.”

I’m expected to find an apartment in Downtown Boston within the month if Emerson happens to run out of beds for the semester, which is perfectly possible as many schools in Boston post-Covid experience overcrowding

Despite risks of overcrowding, most colleges in the Boston area do not explicitly remove housing guarantees for students who take a leave of absence. Boston University’s website has students contact housing for room availability. Suffolk University does not list any limits on housing for those seeking a leave of absence. No mention of housing being taken from any students on leave at Northeastern University who are still in the requirement for on-campus dwelling. 

Going on a leave of absence also means that I had to begin paying any loans I took out to attend Emerson, as the system had me marked down as “unenrolled.” These $472 a month payments are expected to begin in December. In order to defer these baffling monthly payments, Emerson needs to fill out a loan deferment form and send it to my provider. Emerson’s registrar’s office informed me that they would not fill out the paperwork until after the spring semester begins in late January to ensure I would actually return. 

Unfortunately we cannot verify your enrollment until after add/drop of the Spring 2024 semester, assuming that you come back in the Spring as you are planning to do,” an administrator said in response to my inquiry. 

When asked if this process could be expedited when my re-enrollment finalizes in the coming days to avoid the high monthly loan payment, the office replied: “Unfortunately we cannot verify you are enrolled until you are in classes for the semester in question.”

I took a leave of absence because I could not pay for this school, yet I am still expected to pay anyway. Emerson’s costs and lack of support are solely my burden to bear, and I’m treated like a liability for it. By going on a leave of absence, Emerson has a little note next to my file that says: “Fear of commitment.” I’m not afraid to commit, I’m afraid attendance could be financially impossible for me. I got accepted to the same school everyone else did, but my family’s income means this school will find every arbitrary rule in the book to punish me for it. 

Every possible path at this point is expensive. If I transfer schools, I pay the costs of relocation and having to redo my entire first year of college, because transferring specialized liberal arts credits is unlikely. Colleges with my unique program of study tend to disqualify transfer students from receiving merit scholarships. Emory University, an institution with an esteemed English and creative writing program I was briefly interested in, states that “merit-based aid is not available for transfer students.” 

If I stay at Emerson, I will have paid almost $1000 in loan repayments before even settling in my classes because of “protocol.” And I could be temporarily homeless. Not to worry, though, Emerson “understands my frustration.” 

The number of first-generation and/or Pell Grant recipients at Emerson is low, at just 14.3 percent of the 2022 incoming students being eligible for a Pell Grant, and 17.2 percent being first-generation college students. Those I’ve spoken to who do fall in that small demographic have been alienated by the school when seeking necessary extra support, disappointed by their aid awards, and forced to carry the burden alone. 

When you’re wealthy, you don’t have to sacrifice much. You’re free to major in performing or visual arts, and go to Spain for spring break. Art as a career is a luxury to the wealthy. From the Times survey, they concluded that only 1.1 percent of Emerson students from poor families become wealthy themselves. 

When you’re poor, everything is a sacrifice. Your time, wellbeing, and resources. I stretched myself to a breaking point trying to milk every dollar of my education, maintain my position on the Dean’s list, work for a living, meet new people, join organizations, and still contribute to my family. Nothing I did beat the implication of my finances. Still, I feel like a second-class citizen at this school. 

I have to ask: Do you even want us here? 

Reflecting on these interactions with Emerson, I still choose to fight. I deserve to be in the excellent program I was accepted into. I should not miss out on the life I earned because of the circumstances I was born in. Emerson’s faculty may groan when they see my name at the end of an email, but I refuse to be yet another generation sucked into the cycle of poverty. I will get out. I must get out. Because I deserve an education just as much as anyone else.

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About the Contributor
Maddie Barron
Maddie Barron, Magazine Editor & Assistant Opinion Editor
Maddie Barron (she/her) is a junior WLP major with a minor in journalism. She serves as editor for the Beacon Magazine and assistant editor of the opinion section. Maddie is an It Girl, philanthropist, lover, gardener, and the Princess Diana of Goose Creek, SC.

Comments (2)

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  • M

    MC / Nov 1, 2023 at 3:07 pm

    I understand your point. Real poverty, houselessness etc… is far different from a college student who is relativly financially challenged. Surely coverage about how capitalism leaves millions of people on the fringes of despeation and extreme despair. That is sure different than a working-class student trying to manage at Emerson. Maybe the term “working class” is better than “poor” but lets not be pedantic.

    But the author makes a very important and topical point here. And if student from a family making 40 k can barely manage, obviously going to Emerson is a non-starter for people who are really living in povery.
    Emerson ranks last for financial aid, according ot the latest rankings. And this article rightly points out how this is a huge disadantage to students who don’t have the luxury of generational wealth, college funds etc….I recall I had to wait a month or so for financial aid checsk to clear. T The firat four weeks of the semester I would barely have food, evade fare at the T and not have the books in class. (this was before libgen etc… made obtaiing books easy).

    Emerson needs to stop making this a school just for rich kids. And we can discuss this. We can also discuss extreme povertry and how capitalism has left millions of people in a state of utter despair — by design.

    But it does no good to have conflict between the working poor/or lower income families (allbeit from stable homes) and the extremely poor. Any chance of curbing the worst excesses of ccapitalism will require solidarity.

  • M

    Mc / Oct 27, 2023 at 8:55 am

    This is very well said. Reminds me of the book by Barbara ehrenreich where she talks about how it’s incredibly expensive to be poor.

    Also worth noting that Emerson college had to pay a class action settlement about 15 years ago for pushing people to specific providers for private student loans. Is not at all a welcoming place for working-class families and I know bc I was an alumni there class of 2007

    I’ll probably never get out of the debt and I basically regret going.. I could have gone to UMass in the honors program or something but I wanted to go to the school that seemed most compelling and that I deserve to get into.

    One of the unwanted poors….