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.