Why Is No One Talking About Money?

As President Martin reflected in one of her many emails, “close colloquy between faculty and students is Amherst’s signature. We are feeling the loss of one another’s presence, and we will continue to feel it for some time to come.” There is a certain frankness in these sentences that has been hard to come by in the proposed changes to our education in the coming semester. The close-knit community, the “colloquy” at our college is something the administration touts and is one of the reasons why we chose to attend Amherst. It seems contradictory to not receive an upfront recognition of what we have forfeited this past semester and in the coming year, especially in relation to tuition. An education without social distancing restrictions is not simply why we chose Amherst, it’s the basis upon which we enter a financial agreement with the college — whether we pay full tuition or receive financial aid. 

No one asked for the coronavirus pandemic. Given the opportunity to return to the Amherst of a year ago, administrators and students alike would jump at the opportunity. Despite the best efforts of professors and valuable investments in technology, online education is inherently a pale facsimile of the in-person experience offered at Amherst. Let’s not kid ourselves. Liberal arts relies on close interactions with peers and professors, which is something that seems incredibly difficult when social distancing is the norm. Furthermore, there is great value in the free exchange of ideas that happen between people in a casual setting. This is completely lost in online learning. While I am encouraged by the positive spin being put on learning in tents and other creative efforts at socially distant education, this is not something any of us would have chosen. Yet, I am left wondering why Amherst tuition is not brought up in this conversation about the obvious loss of the ideal education we want.

In addition, the Amherst experience is about a lot more than classes. We will no longer have sports, clubs will likely not be able to meet in the same capacity. Facilities such as the gym and unlimited access to Val will simply not exist. Why are we asked to continue paying as if we had access to all of these benefits? Does the administration think we’d forget about all the facets of Amherst life that we have taken advantage of in the past? There should be an acknowledgement of these changes and how it impacts our financial obligations to the college.  

My first request is not extreme. I simply want dialogue about money with the administration. There has been a fundamental fracturing of what is “normal” in the past several months. We have been introduced to the possibility of a hybrid, socially distanced model of education. We were told that the semester is starting earlier and ending at home. Most recently, we were encouraged to take three courses instead of the traditional four. Yet there has been no mention of tuition. Significant changes are being made to our education. It seems irresponsible and disingenuous to turn a blind eye to the looming reality of the price of this education at Amherst.

Certainly, tuition is very important to the quality of learning at Amherst and the amount of financial aid offered to students. I do not wish to overlook that, but the economic toll tuition has on families deserves to be acknowledged. There has been a deafening silence from the administration on this matter. This silence provokes a feeling of skepticism and mistrust. No longer requiring four classes implies there is something qualitatively different about the education we’re receiving. If there is something qualitatively different, shouldn’t there be a transparent conversation about how this impacts tuition? My gut reaction is that we are receiving less, so why not charge less?

In an email President Biddy Martin sent me, in response to my inquiry on the issue of tuition, she quickly wrote off my inquiry in a matter of sentences. “Giving students the option of taking only three courses does not mean that students cannot take four or that there are fewer courses available. That would not be a reason to lower tuition, given student choice.” The administration certainly has their answer ready when it comes to these questions about money, and, most noticeably, shut down any potential dialogue to even consider the scope of these questions. Personally, I’m not satisfied. How can the college better address the feeling that we are being shortchanged? 

In the email Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein sent out to students, the main focus was on the “new and exciting educational opportunities” to learn less. Why not be forthright? It feels like I am being fed a sales pitch, especially when Martin writes off my very valid inquiry in a few words. The least we can do is open dialogue onto the very real implications these changes will have on students, their families and their financials. 

It is not the administration’s fault we need to adapt to our changing world. I do not doubt the capabilities and effort of our professors. However, this boils down to my belief that we are receiving less (and being encouraged to receive less) for the same tuition. I am confident I am not alone in this sentiment. So, I ask the Amherst administration to respond. Why should we pay up to $58,890 for tuition when our education will definitely be different and likely be inferior to prior years? The slick pitch is an affront to my Amherst education.