Vivi Smilgius (she/her) is a fourth-year journalism major with minors in environmental studies and women's, gender, and sexuality studies. She served as The Beacon’s editor-in-chief in the fall of 2022 and is currently on co-op at the Boston Globe. Raised in Indiana, Vivi is The Beacon’s resident Midwesterner and a lifelong ranch dressing defender.
Safe spaces, section 8 and student loan debt: Emerson alums say they (mostly) don’t regret the financial risk
August 30, 2022
For many freshly graduated Emersonians, monthly loan payments are a harsh awakening to the real world of work—or lack thereof—as creatives. While movements toward student loan debt relief have alleviated some of the pressure on student debtors, ever-rising tuition remains prevalent. Emerson is an alluring and expensive entrypoint into the world of the arts, and although many alumni say it’s worth the price, it comes with years of long-term financial stress.
This academic year, the college’s combined direct costs—expenses like tuition and room and board—exceed $72,000 before financial aid, according to the college’s website. While 80% of students are provided aid, less than 10% receive enough to cover their full cost of attendance. On average, Emerson students who financed their education with federal loans graduate from the college with over $23,000 in debt, according to US News.
Despite the price, there is no guarantee students will find immediate success. Just 61% of Emerson’s undergraduate class of 2020 found work immediately after graduation, compared to 75% in 2019, 78% in 2018 and a whopping 87% in 2017, according to the college’s website. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic made postgraduate job markets unpredictable, high school graduates continue to choose Emerson. And, even more surprisingly, many former Emersonians say they would do it all, the education and the debt, over again.
Emerson alumnus Steven Rowley was determined to attend the college since high school, but was unable to do so immediately after graduating. Instead, he took community college courses and worked multiple jobs—sometimes three or four at once—to transfer to Emerson his junior year.
When Rowley transferred in 1992, the college’s tuition cost $13,273—just over a quarter of today’s $52,288 price tag. Emerson’s tuition cost has risen consistently since the 1980s, breaking $50,000 and staying mostly above it since 2018.
While at the school, Rowley spent a semester at the college’s Los Angeles campus, where he worked an internship and gained experience in film and creative writing. After graduating in 1994 with a degree in communications and film—and student loan debt that kept him living paycheck to paycheck for the next decade—Rowley moved back to Los Angeles, working day jobs and writing a novel, eventually becoming an acclaimed author.
He considers Emerson an “incredible gift,” particularly because of the personal connections he made there. He said the college gave him the courage to move to Los Angeles by “demystifying” the film and creative writing industries.
“I thought working in the industry was something you needed a family connection for, or that it was something only rich kids got to do,” he said. “Emerson really allowed me to see this as an industry like any other—you put in your dues, you learn, you get an educational background and you can make a go of it.”
Similarly, alumnus Sam Crimmins said the college showed him the path to success via internship opportunities and time spent with industry professionals. He spent nearly a decade paying back his loans and “felt the heat the whole time,” but considered the real-world experience and newfound network to be invaluable aspects of his college experience.
“Emerson was worth it, but only because it connected me to other people,” Crimmins said. “I didn’t learn that much in school. It was all through my internships, by doing it and doing it wrong and doing it over.”
While the college’s alumni network, known as the Emerson Mafia, has served some well, others like visual and media arts graduate Michael Ventura find it exploitative and demanding. The mafia is marketed heavily to prospective students to ensure postgraduate job security through networking in creative fields, which are notoriously unstable. But in a world where the cost of living is rapidly increasing and student loan debt remains relatively unforgiven, some Emersonians are skeptical about whether those connections will pay for themselves in the long run.
During his time at the college from 2013 to 2017, Ventura said he developed a distaste for the priority Emerson placed on unpaid internships. He said he was open to working without pay when it was required for his academics, but that he draws the line when others profit from his work in internships or jobs.
“The Emerson Mafia is not really a serious way to be financially successful unless you’re willing to jump through some hoops,” he said.
Hoping to find paid work and begin repaying his debt, Ventura said he turned down unpaid internships and low-paying jobs offered by Mafia members. However, he found it difficult to find paid work, too—and began questioning whether his Emerson education was worth its price.
“The more time you spend working and not making any money, it kind of wears you down financially and also emotionally,” he said. “A certain kind of resentment builds up in your heart.”
Since graduating, Ventura has joined an experimental film collective that he described as “fulfilling but not paying” and currently works as a security guard in Boston. He holds a Section 8 voucher, effectively limiting the percent of his income he has to spend on rent before the rest is covered, which he considers himself lucky to have.
“The only reason I [got a voucher] is because Emerson left me so disillusioned with capitalism and the idea that you should even try to make it in society,” Ventura said.
While one camp of Emerson graduates found the lack of high-paying work discouraging, another camp—which includes Crimmins—felt immediate pressure to take low-paying positions because of their student loans. After graduating in 2010 with roughly $40,000 in debt, Crimmins began work as a contract videographer for $15 an hour.
“I feel like a lot of Emerson students want to shoot right to the top when they get out there, but I was just happy to get any job,” he said.
By the time his paychecks covered rent, groceries and other necessities, Crimmins said he barely had enough left over to pay for his loans. For many Americans, the burden of student debt is only exacerbated by an increasingly demanding housing market. Today, almost a quarter of Americans say they spend at least half their income on housing.
Despite the stress caused by financial strain, Crimmins said he felt grateful to have work and continued seeking opportunities for growth. He eventually became Creative Video Manager for The Boston Globe—a position he credited partially to connections he made at Emerson—and later got a job producing videos for an insurance agency, where he still works today.
For alumnus André Archimbaud, the mafia has supported plenty of work as a creative, in every setting from broadcast and radio news to film sets. He said that, coupled with his own field experience and drive, the connections he made via Emerson gave him a “leg up” in repaying his debts via the many creative-industry jobs he worked.
“The network has consistently served me, but I’ve also not been bashful about availing myself to [it],” Archimbaud said.
Archimbaud is among those who say that, if he was 18 again, he’d select Emerson “in a heartbeat.” A few years after he graduated from Emerson in 1994 with an estimated $50,000 in debt, Archimbaud took a job at CBS, where he found himself among plenty of other Emersonians.
“I would genuinely venture to say a third—if I’m being conservative, a quarter—of CBS News, radio and maybe even TV was made up of Emerson alums,” he said. “They’re sort of like a small army in one building.”
Like Archimbaud, alumnus Dustin Straube can link many aspects of his current life to the people he met at the college and the opportunities that resulted from those connections. Since finishing Emerson with a visual and media arts degree in 2008, Straube said, the network he assembled served him well.
“Everything I’ve done has always been connected to my friends from Emerson,” he said. “The Emerson Mafia is what you build with the people you meet there.”
After graduating, Straube moved to New York with an Emerson roommate and took a job at his roommate’s restaurant to pay bills. Several years later, he moved to Los Angeles with his wife and worked freelance video editing jobs via Emerson connections. Eventually, Straube began working on animation for a show produced by—you guessed it—an Emerson graduate.
Kasey Fielding also has Emerson to credit for many long-lasting friendships and career connections. Now working in real estate, Fielding said she doesn’t regret her Emerson education, despite not using her writing, literature and publishing degree in day-to-day life.
“I didn’t need to spend all that money and get in all this debt for this, but I really liked [Emerson],” Fielding said. “Some of my most important friends and city connections I made there are kind of priceless—which is kind of a dumb thing to say because I still have $60,000 in debt.”
When she chose to attend Emerson as a first-generation college student, Fielding didn’t have much background knowledge on the long-term consequences of loans. Advertised by lenders as “buy now, pay later,” the loans made the cost of college seem manageable, she said. At the time, she thought a lot of money was nothing more than a lot of money.
“I think Emerson was $32,000 a year,” Fielding said, “but that amount of money might as well have been $32 million, it was so much.”
By the time she graduated in 2009, Fielding racked up over $60,000 in debt—an expense that “took a heavy backseat” when pitted against other necessities like rent and health insurance—and became one of many former Emersonians paying their dues however possible.
Gaby Dunn graduated from Emerson with a journalism degree in 2010 and went on to start the “Bad With Money” podcast. The podcast allowed Dunn to investigate their financial dilemmas—and the decisions that generated them—through a journalistic lens. While Dunn noted that, in a roundabout way, they have Emerson to thank for the podcast and its format, they weren’t entirely sure the same liberal arts education couldn’t be obtained elsewhere.
“[In] creating this podcast where I was investigating myself, [having studied journalism] was definitely helpful,” Dunn said. “But I don’t know if that’s liberal arts education… or if the ability to do good reporting was coming out of Emerson.”
When asked about their choice to attend Emerson instead of cheaper options, Dunn noted that Emerson provided a space to be openly queer and experience gender and sexuality in ways they could not in their Florida hometown. This safe space was so valuable that Dunn chose to attend Emerson despite the opportunities they had to receive free education at in-state universities.
“The most logical thing would have been to go to school for free in Florida where I got into all these schools,” Dunn said. “But my heart was like, ‘You are gay and you need to go somewhere gay now.’ And I don’t know what that’s worth.”
This safe space is treasured by many in the LGBT community, including Rowley, who was also drawn to Emerson as a place to be open about his sexuality, he said. The college was named #1 in The Princeton Review’s 2018 ranking of LGBTQ-friendly schools and remains in the top 25 most LGBTQ-friendly colleges nationwide.
“I had my sights on Emerson in part because I felt it was a safe place to come out, which is something I was so excited to do,” he said. “I felt that I needed some distance between myself and my home where I grew up to reinvent myself a little bit.”
Over the years, Emerson has developed a community of creatives and entrepreneurs, each at the college to pursue their own artistic goals. Yet, graduates consistently find themselves with tens of thousands of dollars of debt for years following their time at the college, but insist they’d do it all over again if they had the chance. For many, the skills, connections and life experiences developed at Emerson are worth the price paid—especially if those intangibles led to tangible income and an eventual escape from student loan debt.
But how long will these intangibles be worth long-term financial hardship? With increasing tuition and an upward-trending cost of living in Boston, Emerson is becoming increasingly inaccessible and financially risky. Each new class of students represents a widening gap between those who are lucky enough to find success and those who aren’t.