Pre-college program requires intensive commitment for true success

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • November 13, 2014

At issue: School introduces EmersonPathways, a pre-college arts program for local students.

Our take: Despite a worthy goal, the program's structure has many concerning shortcomings.

EmersonPathways, a program launched this year, provides three years of free writing and theater workshops at Emerson to Boston public high school students. It exposes kids to arts classes that they would probably otherwise not experience—a praiseworthy and noble endeavor. Pathways’ also provides them with valuable college preparation resources, which will hopefully motivate more students to not only perform better in high school, but also pursue higher education. By exposing a more diverse range of students to the best that our school has to offer, the program opens up opportunities for participants to develop their passions, while simultaneously creating avenues to broaden the diversity of talents in industries that are still inordinately homogenous. 

But there are some elements of Pathways that seem troublesome and problematic. Emerson accepts the selected students under the guise that they’re being groomed for a college experience similar—or, yes, identical—to the one found on our Boston Common campus. But they might be setting unrealistic expectations for these ostensible prospective students.

Whether by coincidence or Emerson’s choice, many of the students in Pathways come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Emerson must realize that those students, then, are among those most likely to require substantial support—financial and otherwise—to attend. Yet although program coordinators have specifically said they hope the experience will lead participants to apply to Emerson, they’re not guaranteed admission. And if they are accepted as undergraduates, current Pathways plans only indicate the possibility of a scholarship at the college for their final two years—after spending their first two at a community college. Sure, Emerson might not explicitly promise participants anything, but furnishing underprivileged youth with a glimmer of the college’s best resources, only to snatch them away, seems unfair.

Students currently in the program told the Beacon they had no preconceived notions of going to a private liberal arts college like Emerson. But ask these same students again in two and a half years, after they’ve done 48 sessions here, and they may just give you a different answer.

This also highlights one of Emerson’s most persistent problems: money. The college’s undersized endowment and historically lax fundraising mean financial aid is relatively scarce for any student. Full scholarships from Emerson—like the ones Pathways envisions some of its students might receive, and would likely need—are exceedingly rare today. It is key that the college step up its fundraising to deliver on even those two years of scholarships for Pathway participants. If Emerson really wants to increase its diversity with lower-income students, it must help those students actually afford the tuition.

Increasing diversity—though valuable—is only half of the task to be completed to bring about meaningful change on Emerson’s campus. It’s just as essential to increase inclusion. Being a minority student, whether racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic, at any educational institution comes with a unique set of hardships and difficulties that, by definition, the majority of students are unlikely to face. A higher numbers of students alone cannot ameliorate this. It is imperative that increasing diversity does not lead to increasing inequities.

The hope and passion in Pathways participants’ voices is palpable. “I am always challenging myself,” said one student. Now, Emerson too must challenge itself to provide for those students who, motivated by a new potential for higher education, most need its help to fulfill their dreams.