Editorial: Emerson College presents: a convincing performance of inclusivity

Illustration+by+Rachel+Choi

Photo: Illustration by Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi

By Editorial Board

Emerson has a fetish for marginalized communities—but it does not make itself accessible to them. And with a price tag so expensive, it is impossible for Emerson to achieve the diverse environment it advertises, given its ignorance of systemic disproportionalities in race and wealth.

It’s no secret that much of America’s wealth is disproportionately distributed. The wealth gap in the U.S. divides socioeconomically-marginalized communities from the privileged class.  Throughout history, those communities that do not fit the “founding father image” are more likely to have low-income status. 

Private universities are a perfect case study. In 2017, The New York Times reported that at 38 prestigious—and mostly private—higher education institutions in America, more students came from the top one percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent. 

Where does Emerson fit into this? According to the Times, most low-income students in private or selective schools leave their educational institutions and fare almost as well as rich students. But that is not the case at Emerson. The communities Emerson not only desperately wants, but also falsely advertises to embrace, are simply unable to afford the astronomical price tag. 

A New York Times survey found that 3.2 percent of Emerson College’s class of 2013 came from families that make about $20,000 or less per year and only 27 percent are likely to become a part of the top 5 percent. An Emerson student’s median income 10 years after graduation is around $50,000 annually, which is underwhelming when you consider the college’s current tuition price of $52,190. 

During the 2020-21 academic year, Emerson only met 9.4 percent of need-based financial aid, even though 63.3 percent of students applied for financial aid. Approximately 52 percent of students took out loans that year averaging up to $49,924 over four years, according to College Factual. The average debt is close to the average starting salary of Emerson students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree, costing around $39,000 a year

Emerson’s lofty price tag makes the institution virtually inaccessible for people without generational wealth. As a result, students receive an experience tainted by affluence. 

Students come to Emerson in pursuit of liberal arts education, and we’re taught to work as creatives who amplify the voices of marginalized communities. Rarely do members of these communities make up more than a small percentage of each class. In 2021, the Emerson student body was 58 percent caucasian, 13 percent international, 12 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian or Pacific Islander and 4 percent African American, according to the college’s website

The few members of these communities that are at Emerson are often forced to listen to their more privileged peers poorly analyze content in classes like African American History or Gender and Sexuality in the Middle East, while they get by without any real stakes in the matter.  

These situations are a tangible perpetuation of the exclusion of people of color from creative spaces, and coincide with the college’s wealth disparity—highlighted by annual tuition hikes. 

As of March 2022, Emerson increased undergraduate tuition and room and board by 2 percent for the 2022-23 academic year. These increases are not new; the college has raised its tuition incrementally since the 1980s, resulting in roughly a 56 percent increase between 2012 and 2022

Protests and petitions circulated the campus in response to administration’s most recent hike, with many students demanding fiscal transparency through an annual financial town hall, improved financial aid resources, and increased student involvement in financial decisions.

Time and time again, these hikes are met with resistance from students—resistance that is ultimately futile. Low-income students are forced to swallow their Emerson pride and pay up, largely because the majority of their peers—or their parents—can

The Times study reported the median household income of an Emerson student was $147,900 annually. The study also found that 64 percent of Emerson students came from the top 20 percent of income earners, with 8.3 percent belonging to the top 1 percent.

In the 2018-19 academic year, families who earned between $75,000 and $100,000 annually paid the college around $42,458 in net price—the average cost remaining after financial aid—while families earning $30,000 or less paid a net price of $39,241.

Who has the privilege to pursue a creative degree without fear of financial instability? The financially privileged. If you are attending a post-secondary institution for creative- or communication-based enterprises, you are most likely doing so with the knowledge that the road to commercial or monetary success will be paved with financial instability. 

In a school utterly rampant with the affluent, the stakes for success have already fallen only as low as the cushion generational or familial wealth creates. Just as the wealthy receive the privilege to attend a college or university for a creative passion, they also receive the privilege of academic mediocrity or failure with little financial or social repercussions. 

What does it mean to belong to an institution that boasts inclusion of all kinds in its advertisement and curriculum, but fails to reflect that in its community?

Will Emerson ever put its money where its mouth is and make way for the inclusivity it so boldly advertises? Is it possible for low-income, underrepresented students to level the playing field muddied by privilege?

Many private colleges and universities ask the same question and attempt to create spaces where students beyond the white and affluent can thrive in prestigious post-secondary institutions. 

Princeton University developed a tuition-free college preparatory program for high school students from underrepresented socioeconomic and cultural groups in Mercer County, New Jersey. Students apply in the spring of their freshman year and, once accepted, spend three summers on Princeton’s campus preparing for admission to and success within selective colleges and universities. 

The Educational Testing Service evaluated Princeton’s program and found nearly 70 percent of the program’s alumni consistently graduate from competitive colleges and universities. According to ETS, the more competitive the college or university, the higher the likelihood that low-income students will graduate and earn better incomes. 

The real question students should ask is what resources Emerson provides to ensure not only the admission, but long-term success of underrepresented students?