Economic inequality at Emerson

by Katie Prisco-Buxbaum / Beacon Staff • April 18, 2013

I have spent the last two weeks with thirteen cents in my checking account. I have no savings, and I will graduate from this institution with over $50,000 of debt. And last week, when I told a peer that I would be unable to attend an event that cost $5 because I couldn’t afford it, she snapped, “would it really set you back that much?”

Emerson has a real problem with diversity. It’s not just the diversity confined to the narrow definition that only includes race or sexual orientation, but a larger lack of perspective at our college, namely socioeconomic diversity. The administration needs to make this aspect of diversity a priority in admissions for the personal benefit of all students.

As a low-income student at Emerson, I am part of a small minority of students financing their own educations and facing the reality of living paycheck to paycheck. In 2011, 46.2 million Americans lived below the poverty line, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies as $23,021 for a family of four. Only 51 percent of students qualify for institutional grants, 14 percent qualify for federal aid, and eight percent recieve state aid, according to our College Prowler profile, which is a testament to the lack of financial need most Emerson students face. Few students understand the burden of wondering each semester whether you will be able to afford to finish your degree, and many students don’t have to worry about balancing a job with classes and picking up every available hour.

I am the product of a single mother, who was unemployed for a majority of my college career and has two other children facing the economic strain of higher education. It can be frustrating to have to explain to other students that I don’t have parents who can bail me out when I can’t pay my bills or that I can’t come up with the money to attend travel abroad opportunities. Economic privilege allows my peers a variety of educational resources and opportunities. For example, I considered applying to law school and found that many of my peers with similar interests were able to afford LSAT preparation classes and the financial burden of attending graduate programs. The ability to pay for these things helps higher-income students prepare and focus on admittance, which explains why more than three-quarters of the students at the nation’s top 20 law schools come from the top one-fourth of the socioeconomic population, according to a 2011 report in the American Bar Association Journal.

Despite the negatives of living without economic security, I believe my experiences have taught me the value of hard work, increased my financial literacy, and allows me to bring a unique perspective to class discussions. For example, this semester in one of my communication studies courses, we were discussing Loss Aversion Theory, which contends that financial decisions are made emotionally. In the discussion, I brought up the point that the class exercise may have been skewed because as college students, most of us have little disposable income and therefore are more averse to taking financial risks for possible gains.

In countless debates with Emerson students about these issues, my race has discredited me from being counted as a diverse voice, regardless of the fact that my financial status and my gender give me a unique perspective on the different types of privilege that exist. I believe that by increasing the number of low-income students at Emerson, it would facilitate a greater level of understanding and incorporate a larger range of life experiences. By expanding the opportunity to attend our college to a greater number of low-income students, our applicants would be able to attain a higher education that they may otherwise be unable to achieve. Socioeconomic and racial diversity are very interrelated, and socioeconomically diverse campuses tend to have greater racial and cultural interactions.

The lack of affordability of these opportunities at Emerson is a reminder that economic privilege is very real and gives some students an unfair advantage. Most students in financial situations close to mine do not get to attend “selective” or “highly selective” higher education institutions: Only nine percent of lower-middle class students admitted only five percent of students with family income below $30,000, according to 2006 figures from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.  

There are many tools that the college could employ to encourage this demographic to apply and choose to attend Emerson. Many students living under the poverty line are unsure of the application process and federal financial aid available, so Emerson should make a commitment to increasing recruitment efforts in low-income communities and offering resources and tutorials to help students understand their options. Emerson could also offer entrance meetings with financial aid counselors to accepted students within the lower income brackets to encourage them to make effective decisions when taking out loans. The Emerson community could also focus alumni fundraising efforts by offering a contribution program in which alumni could chose to “sponsor” students with high potential, but low financial means, to engage alumni in an active and positive way and alleviate the economic strain attending college can put on students.