LETTER TO THE EDITOR: An open letter to President C. L. Max Nikias: A troubled Trojan is looking for answers


Dear President Nikias,

Spring break is over and yet many of my fellow Trojans come back restless, not because of the fun they had traveling but because of the looming bills and payments that await them.

While students should be able to focus and hone in on getting good grades and enjoying their college experience, many face the pressing issue of college affordability.

Two weeks ago, students rallied against an $1,978 increase that would put tuition at $51,442, higher than Stanford, Yale and Harvard.  The demonstration drew national media representation, yet you refused to meet with any of the courageous students who shared their stories with the public. Your administration even turned a prospective student away from attending the University after he witnessed the rally and made a point to voice his concern to officials.

I urge you to reconsider and meet with the students who have expressed their financial hardships. We need to know where our money is going as any good ratepayer should. And most importantly, I want you to explain your side of the story as to why such obscure procedures continue at a leading academic institution.

I cannot help but continue to shed light on a serious problem that has affected thousands of students and me. The rising cost of education at USC forced me to consider transferring out of the University last year when I was a sophomore.

I spent hours writing college essays in addition to my actual college essays and found myself stressing over every grade. Without doubt, it was one of the worst points in my life. Knowing that the amount of time and effort I put getting into this school in the first place could be washed away was hard to even comprehend. It felt like it was senior year of high school all over again, except much more expensive.

The USC Financial Aid Office, instead of congratulating my parents for making smart financial decisions to better prepare them for a sustainable retirement, slapped them on the wrist. To maintain the grants I received my freshman year, my family would have to forgo the future guarantees of financial security that they had tirelessly worked for. Having parents who went through the worst in the real estate and health insurance industries during the recession, it made no sense for me to put them at any more of a risk. The investment they were already making in my education — and soon to be my sister’s — was more than I could ever ask for.

It was by the grace of the Town & Gown of USC that I was able to stay and finish my college career as a Trojan. Because of the stress this situation put on my family, my sister chose not to even apply to USC. I know other families that have made the same decision.

USC cannot continue to tout all of the positives it’s doing in relation to financial aid (Pell grants, endowment, etc.) by diverging from the truth. I commend Undergraduate Student Government and other students for working hard to get this very truth from you and the administration, and I will continue to back such efforts. I will always step up to the plate and defend USC’s advancements, but your administration’s failure to communicate with students makes it harder for me to do so.

What am supposed to say when a family comes up to me during an admitted student reception and says, “How is financial aid at USC? Is it guaranteed?” or “Do you know where the money goes?” A family can make $150,000 a year and get nothing in financial aid; yet, that’s almost what it takes to pay for one year of schooling when taxes and other expenditures are put into play. It just does not make sense.

Even partial scholarships have less of an impact on students every year. A $15,000-a-year award will barely cover tuition hikes by the time a student graduates. And yet we are meant to make a big deal about it. Somehow now that student can afford college. Somehow, now that student can truly be a proud Trojan.

Thousands of students are in worse financial predicaments than mine. I’m writing this in terms of principle and that no one should have to convince their family to lessen their future financial security, especially after a recession, to attend the college of their dreams.

Let me say that I am not one to talk poorly about USC — I work for the Alumni Association and can tell you countless positives to being and becoming a part of the Trojan Family. I have had an incredibly wholesome experience thus far attending the University, in part because of several changes that USG and the administration made since President Sample’s tenure, such as an increase in academic rigor and global awareness. And I have had opportunities to make some of these changes in our community and beyond through leadership and philanthropy.

As a journalist, I am trained to see every side of an argument and eager to hear your response to all of us students concerned with the rising cost of tuition. You owe a meeting to everyone who rallied, allowing each student an opportunity to share their story in person.

I know in my heart that you care about us students, President Nikias. If you value transparency and leading the charge on reforming education economics, you must act now. Put your constituents first and meet with us and explain your side of the story. That’s all I ask.

Giovanni Moujaes

Junior, broadcast and digital journalism

  • sapientia314159

    Here are some fact-checks to understand some of the context of this national conversation:

    – While the $50K price tag is shocking, this is actually an increase rate lower than in past years at USC. It was previously 6-6.5% per year and has been curtailed to about 4% per year more recently. A call for 10% budget cuts across all departments and schools was initiated in 2014. Comparably, Harvard and Stanford tend to increase their tuition at a rate of 3.5% each year, and Yale is also at a 4% annual increase. This used to be in line with inflation rates, but not anymore. Inflation has mostly been below 2% since 2009, when, uh, something happened in the world economy…

    That said, having a percent increase in tuition is obviously unsustainable as 4% of $1000 is very different from 4% of $1700. The media seems to be making a big deal about $50K, but lots of universities aren’t far behind (in the high 40s) and I would venture to say these other high tuition private universities will soon join the 50K Club. Clearly no points for being “first” on this one.

    – Entering the ranks of top national universities, USC is now thrown in the same conversation with top-10 schools such as Yale, Stanford, and Harvard. However, USC has an undergraduate enrollment the size of Yale, Stanford, and Harvard COMBINED (19,000 undergrads vs. 5,000, 7,000, and 6,500 respectively). The truth is that there are very few *private* universities as large as USC; only NYU and BYU are bigger.

    – Yale and Stanford have $20+ BILLION endowments, Harvard has $36 billion. These large endowments are how those universities can offer “free tuition” to lower-income students.

    USC’s endowment? $4.7 billion; a mere fraction of these other schools. And yet, USC spends more than twice as much on putting money back into the Financial Aid budget than, say Stanford ($400 million vs. $168 million). USC’s financial aid benefits 11,000 students. Stanford’s financial aid? Benefits 3,400 students. So, they can afford to give larger awards because a) they have more money in general; and b) they are giving it to far fewer students.

    The comparison to smaller, wealthier institutions I’m sure is flattering (and even encouraged), but USC is not Harvard. Such comparisons are apples and… watermelons. USC operates the large majority of their expenses from tuition and fees, and the endowment understandably plays a smaller role in their annual expenses than at schools like Harvard and Stanford. USC is not-for-profit; every tuition dollar must go back to operate or invest in the institution in some form.

    Could USC do better? Always.

    Is more transparency a good thing? Absolutely.

    But I believe that context is everything, and I don’t think they get credit for the good things they are doing which impact the net price of 60% of their 19,000 students.

    All of this information is available for anyone who bothers to look. This is not just a USC problem, it is a national higher education problem. Although USC would be wise to figure out a solution for their unique position as a very large private institution to develop a more sustainable model of tuition pricing. And soon.

  • Paul

    Thank you for sharing, Gio. I truly hope Nikias reads this and takes it to heart.

  • Sarah Baldwin

    Thank you for your heartfelt plea to President Nikias, Mr. Moujaes. It makes no sense that an education at USC should cost more than one at Stanford Harvard or Yale.