Emerson should work for a more affordable hybrid experience


Christine Park

The ideal solution would be to decrease tuition, allowing for more applications, more students, and in the end, a more accessible Emerson.

By Claire Rodenbush, Assistant Opinion Editor

Claire Rodenbush is the Student Government Association Executive President for the 2020–21 academic year. Rodenbush is a third-year student studying creative writing. 

The following is a message to the Emerson Board of Trustees:

You have a moral obligation to significantly decrease tuition for the 2020–21 school year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Failure to do so would be failure of moral character. It would be irresponsible and tone deaf of Emerson to charge full price for what is not a full fall semester, especially in the wake of a pandemic that has led to the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. The Emerson Board of Trustees must shift the burden of recovering from the pandemic off the backs of students.

Next semester’s incoming first-year class will likely end up being the smallest the college has seen in recent years. Returning students may also opt to take a gap semester or year; some may drop out. Emerson College, like all businesses, exists to make money. There is incentive for the Board of Trustees to yet again raise tuition, to compensate for a smaller student body. However, tuition is already so high that raising it any further will only discourage student return.

It’s a cyclical problem—if lower enrollment rates lead to the Board yet again raising tuition, enrollment rates will only continue to shrink, thus encouraging the Board to raise tuition. This increase will continue until only the wealthiest students can afford to attend Emerson. Should the Board want to continue to make money in the long term, the ideal solution would be to decrease tuition, allowing for more applications, more students, and in the end, a more accessible Emerson.

In order to get to that point, the Board needs to listen to student voices and comply with their requests. Emerson is funded by both the federal government and student tuition. Until the government increases funding for secondary education, the Board needs to be the ones who take a loss––not students, staff, or faculty. In the pursuit of affordability, the salaries of staff and professors should not be lowered.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a physical health crisis, but a mental health one. Students are tasked with the bulk of adaptation under the college’s reopening policy, but they should not be solely responsible in their recovery. The college is operating under the assumption that all students will be able to prepare for a significantly altered fall 2020 semester, and so far have offered no assistance in easing this pressure. The Board must ease financial tension off the shoulders of students, to ease the mental and physical toll it takes on them. If President M. Lee Pelton wants “[the college] to continue to thrive,” as he said in his statement regarding reopening, then he and the rest of the Board need to take the full responsibility of making that happen.

The average student tuition for the Spring 2020 semester was $33,564, calculated by adding together the cost of tuition and room and board. This price does not include health insurance or meal plans. I propose that the Board of Trustees reduce that cost by $10,000 to $15,000, not including additional student aid. In order to make this more affordable semester a possibility, I propose that the following list of changes should be made by the Board:

  • Non-essential construction projects and acquisitions of new buildings should be put on hold indefinitely. These are presumably some of the largest expenses the college makes, and a large part of why student tuition is so high. Colleges borrow money, and when government funding doesn’t cover costs, they turn to students. Emerson tries to justify tuition increases by comparing itself to colleges such as Northeastern University and Boston College. However, these colleges meet between 94-100 percent of student financial need. Emerson, on average, meets only 49 percent of student needs. Emerson has no business continuing rapid expansion if they cannot meet the needs of their existing student body.
  • Classes that are held entirely online for the fall 2020 semester should be billed as online classes. If students are not getting a 100 percent in-person classroom experience, they should not be paying in-person prices.
  • Marlboro students who choose to defer from fall 2020 entry into Emerson should still be guaranteed Marlboro tuition rates.
  • Housing costs for the fall 2020 semester should be halved, from $9,200 to $4,600 for on-campus students. While the restrictions detailed in the Office of Housing and Residential Education’s reopening plan are completely understandable, and I agree with them wholeheartedly, one thing is clear: students will not experience a full dorm lifestyle, so the college should not expect them to pay full price.
  • The costs of dining plans should be adjusted to meet what will likely be fewer and smaller-scale on-campus dining options.
  • The needs of students who rely on Emerson for employment should be considered. If they aren’t hired back by the college, or choose not to return for health concerns, an assistance program needs to be put in place by the Office of Student Success to ensure they have something to depend on.
  • Emerson’s highest paid upper-level administrators should make a sacrifice and take a pay cut. Student tuition pays their salaries. Pelton’s salary, combined with the value of the property where he resides, for the fiscal year 2018 was $701,096, according to public tax filings. If he and the other highest paid administrators want students to feel secure returning to a post-COVID college, they should be willing to take a smaller salary in exchange for a less financially strained student body.
  • Students should be granted equal voting representation on the Board of Trustees. While SGA typically appoints a member to speak to the Board two or three times a year, this member only gives a prepared speech. The role of the individual appointed should not be performative. They deserve voting power.
  • The Board of Trustees’ meeting minutes should be made available to the student body.
  • Completely defund the Emerson College Police Department, and redirect funds to student aid and mental health resources.

The Board needs to act quickly. Students rely on their enrollment to the college for secure housing and health insurance. If the Board does not meet the demands listed above, or do not address student concerns, they need to be prepared to explain why action isn’t being taken to help those who need it most.

The following is a message to students of Emerson College:

If the Board doesn’t significantly reduce tuition for next semester, a lot of us, myself included, will be understandably upset. Just as my message to the Board was a call to action, my message to you is as well. If you are a student reading this and agree with the demands listed above, push for them to be put into action.

Students are customers of Emerson’s corporation. We purchase an education from them: their product. We pay the salaries of upper-level administrators. We pay for construction. By attending Emerson and hopefully having successful careers, we boost their reputation. Without our money, Emerson cannot exist. Whether the administrators admit it or not, they need us to keep going. But if a customer can find a cheaper product of similar quality elsewhere, they’re going to go elsewhere. If the product becomes too expensive, they’re going to stop buying it altogether.

Students should recognize the power that our collective voices have over an administration. We’re living in unprecedented times of rapid social and political change, and that same energy we have toward local, state, and federal governments can be applied to Emerson’s administration. In the past, the Emerson College Student Union has posted anonymous stories of students affected by tuition hikes. Students have been struggling to pay Emerson’s astronomical tuition for years now, and things will only get worse if we don’t do everything in our power to hold the administration accountable to implement changes.

Contact members of the Board: Pelton, Vincent J. Di Bona, Albert M. Jaffe, Jeffrey D. Greenhawt, Steven Samuels, Michael MacWade, and Marillyn Zacharis. Contact upper-level members of Emerson’s finance staff. Let your story be known—tell them how another tuition increase will harm you, and how a decrease is the only way for Emerson to recover from COVID-19. Start petitions for change now, and come August, if things have yet to change, start organizing protests. You may not agree with every proposal I’ve made, but something no student can disagree with is that Emerson is expensive. With all of us in agreement, the administration will have to listen to our voices.

Update 6/17: This article has been updated with amended information about President Pelton’s compensation.