USC needs more financial aid options

Seventy-six percent of high school seniors reach the finish line of their K-12 education victorious, with acceptance letters from their top-choice college in hand. Nearly 25 percent of these accomplished graduates, however, must forgo attending their top-choice school due to insufficient financial aid.

These are hard-working students — students who slaved over application essays, buried themselves in extracurriculars and toiled through the grind of high school. Sadly, these 25 percent of students are blocked from attending their top choice school not because they didn’t earn it, but because they can’t afford it. USC can help these students who dream of joining the Trojan family by expanding its financial aid options.

Stanford announced this week that it would offer free tuition to families with annual incomes below $125,000. Additionally, students from families making less than $65,000 are eligible to receive free room and board. This announcement demonstrates a strong commitment to students and a recognition that finances should not be a factor in college decisions.

Stanford isn’t alone. Tuition breaks for middle-class families are becoming a commonality among prestigious institutions. Princeton and Dartmouth offer free tuition to families making less than $120,000 and $100,000, respectively, while Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Yale and MIT all have free tuition cutoffs for families with incomes below $60,000-$75,000. Meanwhile, USC currently has no minimum income for free tuition.

In order to continue attracting bright, high-achieving students, USC must rethink its financial aid policies and take steps to offer a similar program. USC has long held the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “University of Spoiled Children,” a nickname which could be here to stay as other schools increasingly offer stronger financial aid packages to lower-income and middle-income students.

USC has increased its economic diversity of late, but this trend will come to a screeching halt if middle-class students are forced to take out loans here but not elsewhere. Increasing financial aid options would prove that USC wants students who can contribute to a thriving learning environment, not just students who can pay.

One of the most fundamental concepts of economics is competitive pricing, a concept which USC blatantly ignores. With any product, from cars to diapers, consumers consider the price compared to similar items. Though the tuition of other elite schools is comparable to USC’s, generous financial aid like Stanford’s results in a significantly lower final price.

Instead of making its final price tag competitive with other schools, USC practically labels itself as commodity. Alongside the listing of USC’s tuition on the school’s website reads the description, “Terrific students taught by a great faculty on a beautiful campus in an exciting location,” an apparent attempt to justify the university’s high price. When it comes to education, however, a high price tag does not necessarily mean high quality. If that were the case, then the Ivies’ free tuition would characterize them as low quality.

A high price tag will never be an attraction point for students, no matter how it’s justified.

In a statement regarding Stanford’s decision, the school’s provost, John Etchemendy, explained, “Our highest priority is that Stanford remain affordable and accessible to the most talented students, regardless of their financial circumstances … these enhancements will help even more families, including those in the middle class, afford Stanford without going into debt.”

The key words are “without going into debt.” While other private schools are combating high price tags by eliminating them altogether, USC embarrassingly giving middle-income students to fend for themselves, usually leaving them no choice but to take out loans.

The main page of USC’s financial aid website boldly claims, “Cost should not be the primary factor in your decision to apply or to attend.” As with other institutions, the final price tag prospective Trojans face is usually significantly lower than the official tuition price.

But while other institutions lower costs through grants, scholarships and waivers, USC’s price tag is often lowered by daunting loans. For high-achieving middle-class students faced with the choice of a free education or a lifetime repaying student loans, cost will inevitably become the primary factor, driving otherwise deserving students away from our institution and accessible to the most talented students, regardless of their financial circumstances … these enhancements will help even more families, including those in the middle class, afford Stanford without going into debt.”

USC needs to put their own money — not money from private and federal loans — where its mouth is and offer tuition breaks to the students who need them.

One could argue that institutions like Stanford can offer free tuition because their endowment is larger than that of USC. Schools with endowments closer to USC, however, are also offering free tuition programs. Dartmouth is one such example, with a $4.4 billion endowment, compared to USC’s $4.5 billion.

Granted, Dartmouth’s endowment supports a smaller student body than USC. USC, however, is no stranger to raising money. When USC wants something, it finds a way to fund it. USC’s administration should dedicate the same effort they place toward funding new buildings to assisting students with tuition, which would demonstrate a genuine commitment to students.

And new construction and new students aren’t mutually exclusive; a policy which sets aside a certain percentage of all donations towards scholarship initiatives could supplement USC’s already comparatively large endowment. Additional funds could come from redistributing merit and SCion award money away from high-income students who don’t actually need it, among other options.

USC prides itself on being both academically and athletically competitive. It is now time to be economically competitive. Before wowing prospective students with a winning football team or shiny new academic facilities, USC needs to show high-achieving students they recognize their worth.

12 replies
  1. Sarah Baldwin
    Sarah Baldwin says:

    My son had to make a choice between Stanford and USC. Our income was just over the $100,000 threshold to qualify for free tuition at Stanford, but USC offered him a half-tuition merit scholarship. Stanford offers no merit scholarships. So even though Stanford is more prestigious and would have been his first choice, my son chose USC. Even at our income, we could not afford four years of Stanford at full tuition, and are grateful for the merit scholarship USC offered, allowing him to graduate without a massive amount of debt.

  2. medavinci
    medavinci says:

    USC was extremely generous with me and my friends who got in. Some received scholarships, and I received nearly a full ride in grants. I only had to pay $5000/yr, and $2500 of it could be paid through work study. I am so grateful for the opportunity to attend what would have been totally unaffordable.

  3. Benjamin Roberts
    Benjamin Roberts says:

    David’s analysis below is correct. Had the author achieved the same level of thought an insight, she might not even have written this article. When all factors are considered, properly, USC has historically always offered very generous financial aid packages including full, free rides.

    All of this aside, I’m forced once again to question the author’s premise in the first place. While it is indeed important for universities to offer strong financial aid to qualified students (including full scholarships where appropriate), I’m not sure it’s right or appropriate at all to suggest that just because a student “slaved over application essays” or “buried themselves in extracurriculars” or “toiled through the grind of high school” that they are entitled to their first choice college. A student who is truly qualified (not only in the terms outlined by the author but also armed with spectacular grades and GPA), will find acceptable tuition assistance at any number of quality institutions. It just smells like more entitlement mentality. Young people today want everything their way, in their time, and apparently free… or as close to free as possible. The only thing we are entitled to as citizens is education through high school. Anything beyond that is subject to the same elements of competition, capitalism, and sacrifice as anything else. This should only seem harsh to a juvenile; An applicant for college should embody the maturity to understand and appreciate this.

    • trojaneer
      trojaneer says:

      Interesting, are you aware of any of the statistics regarding the average student’s accomplishments at USC? Bear in mind that as time progresses, generations become more intelligent and generally accomplish more. Recent incoming classes exemplify this. Also, before you judge the entitlement of my generation, consider that we are asking only for the same opportunities as the generation that created this disaster for us. Prior to this “entitled generation,” it was actually feasible for a student to finance their entire education with little to no loans and/or scholarships. They could work summer jobs and ~20 hrs/week during the year. I do that now and can’t make a dent in my loans included with my “free ride.” This is where the fine print comes in handy in terms of their “generosity.” God forbid students now want to have the best education we are offered without having years of debt trailing behind them. We should just settle for what we can afford, just like previous generations had to. Obviously WE caused the rising price tag of tuition. (These last three sentences are dripping with sarcasm.)
      And also, who are you to judge the qualification of a student? An acceptance to USC should be qualification enough, otherwise USC is just enticing students with what they can’t have. I just want to be able to focus on my education without worrying about debt that will never go away, even if I die or declare bankruptcy. That is a heavy burden for anyone, and is the last thing that should be on my mind as I’m deciding and continuing my academic career.

      • Benjamin Roberts
        Benjamin Roberts says:

        Don’t be angry. I’m not making judgments on people individually, but I am most certainly observing a trend that I think is ultimately not helpful to young people as they face challenges ahead in life. It’s important to work within one’s budget in all areas, including choosing a school. (By the way, I’m 43 and still young enough to relate on many levels to college students today.) In the end, we are TROJANS. I love USC today as much as I did in my time there, and the fact that you or anyone else would choose USC over other choices, despite the financial hurdles, is admirable.. You could get an excellent education across town at UCLA (gross as that is to consider) for a lot less money. You should be proud of your accomplishments academically and otherwise because it is certainly more difficult to get into USC now than when I was there. Don’t take any of this as an attack.

        • trojaneer
          trojaneer says:

          I don’t mind you stating your opinion, but I will gladly attack it with fact. People in their thirties admit they can hardly relate to present day collegiate circumstances, and unless you work directly with college admissions and financial institutions it’s likely you’re very removed from the process. I’m from out of state, and a UC school is not just a hurdle but Mount Everest financially. No schools around me offer the education and opportunity that USC does, and it is offensive that you would tell me to go elsewhere. USC obviously wants diversity, especially socio-economically, ergo they should make it feasible for the students they want. It’s as simple as that.

    • gwood3469
      gwood3469 says:

      Thanks Mitt Romney. Your argument sounds a lot like “shop around.” There is no entitlement to her arguments. Period. And I second just about everything tojaneer posted below.

      • Benjamin Roberts
        Benjamin Roberts says:

        Of course you do. You worked hard through high school and excelled academically, and were accepted to USC… and now you feel you shouldn’t have to pay as much (if at all) for your first choice school. GROW UP. And yes, shop around! Figure it out. Find the best academic value at the school that gives you the best financial aid package that works within your budget constraints. The original article was juvenile and uninspired; Your response is predictable.

        • trojaneer
          trojaneer says:

          Of course the article is juvenile, it’s addressing the concerns of people younger than you. That’s the definition of juvenile. The article is “uninspired” because no one in your generation cares enough to address the issue. So we keep having to address it. You want to talk about predictable responses, talk about any adult who talks about how they “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and figured it out” when the choices then were not only more limited but less than half of the cost they are now. The good old days when a college education was a luxury instead of the necessity and business transaction it is now.

  4. david
    david says:

    Important to know that in real terms USC’s endowment is significantly smaller than any and all of the schools you mention. Per student endowment is the defining metric (and you mention it). So, in real terms, Dartmouth’s endowment is 4-5 times bigger than USC’s. Important to note that for every 10 applicants accepted to USC, only 3.4 choose to enroll, yet we still enroll ~ 3,000 freshman/year, 65% of which require some sort of financial aid. Yale enrolls less than half this number and per student endowment is ~20 times bigger than ours. So, not only are we enrolling many more needy students but we simply don’t have the endowment to support the generosity of truly elite schools.

    • trojaneer
      trojaneer says:

      The author calls for a better reallocation of funds and more fundraising (because we do it very effectively) in order to fulfill the 100%-of-need-met financial aid USC advertises on all of it’s financial aid information. Because at this point, it is false advertising, and either USC needs to update its websites with the truth or live up to the lies they’re feeding us. (For example, I personally know five students whose EFC is 00000 on FAFSA and they still have to pay out of pocket costs.)

  5. b juardo
    b juardo says:

    Those schools you mentioned have more solid reputations. SC still has its work cut out. The six billion dollar campaign is for what? Fancier facilities?…

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