On a warm day in early April, a group of USC students stood in the center of campus chanting and protesting the most recent hike in tuition fees.
“Nikias, step off it, put students over profit,” they shouted into a megaphone just a few feet from Bovard Auditorium, where President C. L. Max Nikias’ office is located.
The 11 students convened were speaking out against the most recent $3,000 tuition hike for the 2016-2017 school year, putting USC’s price tag ahead of other universities like Stanford University and Harvard University as one of the most expensive colleges in the country.
The cost of USC can quickly become prohibitive for lower-income students even if they take on a job, an issue that the University has been attempting to address for centuries. As far back as the 1960s, the students and faculty of USC were exploring ways to broaden perspectives and open up the Trojan Family to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
USC’s tuition increase follows a growing national trend. Tuition costs for private universities have been outpacing inflation since before the turn of the millennium, and the average cost of attendance at a private four-year university is now $38,762 compared to $18,573 in 2000, according to U.S. News. Given the rising cost of attending college, the University tries to help students plan for the future.
“From the financial aid perspective, we’re consistent in our message that the University does increase tuition every year and that the average tuition increases so that people can plan for it,” said Dean of Financial Aid Thomas McWhorter.
For many students, this warning is not enough, and they would like more specific information about where the extra money is going. The University’s full financial statement is available online with details about assets, investments and the operating budget of the institution. However, it is a difficult document to digest for the average viewer and doesn’t include an easy way to visualize changes in the budget over time as tuition costs increase.
Between the rising cost of tuition, fees, housing, books, transportation and other expenses, the current estimated price tag of the USC experience is around $69,711 per year. The Undergraduate Student Government is looking to change this and has been working with the administration to find a way to communicate these changes to students.
In response to tension and protests regarding the homogeneity of the undergraduate and graduate student body, the University passed a student-initiated referendum in 1970 called the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund to provide scholarships for qualified low-income students. The program required all students to contribute a modest $4 fee to the fund each semester, a small price to pay for a program that would bring new perspectives onto campus, particularly from the neighborhoods surrounding USC.
In 1993, the Los Angeles Times wrote an article about the students who had benefited from the NTSAF. One student said, “this diversity is what America is going to look like in the future.” Fast forward to today, and the NTSAF still raises funds for scholarships — now with an $8 instead of $4 fee — but the University has developed many other opportunities to make the Trojan experience available to people of all backgrounds.
While answering questions of how tuition is being used, Nikias is also working to raise money so that students don’t have to pay as much.
In 2011, Nikias launched a $6 billion fundraising campaign with the vision of strengthening USC’s impact on the community and the world. Part of this vision involves providing more opportunities for students, as a significant portion of these funds will go directly into the endowment for student scholarships. According to McWhorter, the increase in funds could open up new opportunities for students with need.
“With more money at our disposal, we could be more generous in how we analyze need,” McWhorter said. “We could provide less financial aid package in loan, and also provide more merit scholarship opportunities.”
Additionally, though USC stands out as one of the most expensive schools in the country, it also stands out as one of a limited number of schools in the country to offer need-blind admission, meaning the school does not consider financial circumstances while evaluating applicants. The financial aid system also meets full demonstrated need, theoretically making the USC experience available to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. The question though, for students such as those protesting outside Bovard Auditorium, becomes whether low-income students have access to the same USC experience.
An important part of the USC experience involves student organizations. There are hundreds of student organizations on campus and many of them require dues that range anywhere from $80 to $3,000, which can be a formidable barrier for low-income students. USG President Edwin Saucedo understands the struggle for low-income students joining organizations with expensive dues.
“I am a low-income student and so I am at USC on a full ride,“ Saucedo said. “However, that full ride applies to my studies, applies to my housing, applies to some expenses, but it doesn’t support being able to get involved with these types of organizations. So having to pay $2,000 in dues every semester would have to come from my pocket, and some people just can’t afford to do that.”
Even students from a financially secure background face barriers to joining these student organizations. Jeff Fischer, a senior majoring in psychology, does not receive financial support from his parents beyond the estimated cost of attendance. As a result, he works at local restaurant Study Hall to pay his fraternity dues, housing and social expenses. He said the balancing act of working and completing school work has been difficult but rewarding.
“It’s a burden, and it’s a lesson,” Fischer said. “I have to work to maintain the social life that I want at USC, but then I don’t take it for granted because of the fact that I do earn it.”
However, students are also worried about where their money is going, regardless of how much of their tuition they are paying. USG has also been fighting for tuition transparency to alleviate students’ concerns about the steadily rising price of their education.
“It helps students understand that if they’re getting an increase in tuition, where is that additional money going to?” Saucedo said. “Is it going to the professors or simply into the pockets of the administrators? And I don’t think it’s the latter, but I think a lot of students are skeptical that it is. So that’s really what we’re trying to prove.”
Tuition costs will continue climbing and students will continue to struggle with how to finance college. But the administration and USG have both set forth a goal — to keep money from being a prohibitive factor to anyone who hopes to someday become a Trojan.