When the USC administration raised next year’s tuition by $2,006, Emily Wan heard all the reasons for this change. Wan, a sophomore majoring in neuroscience, understood that the University needed to pay for increased student services and fund a large financial aid pool, all explanations Provost Michael Quick gave in a press release on March 1. But for Wan, the increase still caused financial difficulties.
“There is a large portion of us who do not receive financial aid,” Wan said. “Of that large portion, a lot of us do not have the means of paying for it all [tuition]. A lot of us are not rich enough, wealthy enough to pay for the entire amount.”
Although USC’s tuition increases are at a five-year average low, the anticipated 3.9 percent increase for the 2017-2018 school year is slightly higher than the average increases of 22 comparable universities across the nation. A Daily Trojan survey found that for the upcoming school year, the average increase in tuition at the universities will be 3.70 percent.
These data indicate that USC’s increase is not unusual among its peer universities, and as a statement from the University pointed out, tuition only covers 78 percent of undergraduate education costs. But despite the use of this increase to fund student and academic services, in addition to instruction expenses, many students are still hit hard by higher costs and a lack of aid.
Funding financial aid
According to the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges, published in-state tuition and fees between 2006 and 2017 at public four-year institutions increased at an average rate of 3.5 percent per year beyond inflation. During the same time period, average published tuition and fees at private nonprofit four-year colleges rose by an average of 2.4 percent per year.
USC’s increase is higher than the College Board’s findings and the average of the 22 universities surveyed.
According to the University, this increase is due to rising costs for technology, salaries and academic services.
“Along with most universities, our costs related to educating students increase every year,” the University said in a statement sent to the Daily Trojan on April 20. “Among those costs are instruction expenses — including faculty salaries and benefits — student services, and academic support. And even with the increases, undergraduate student tuition still does not cover the full costs of education.”
In the March 1 press release, Quick stated that USC also hopes to mitigate costs for students through a large financial aid pool. The Financial Aid Office could not be reached to confirm whether increasing financial aid opportunities was the direct reason for the tuition hike. But although USC spent $528 million on financial aid in the last year, and over half of all students receive some form of financial assistance, many students still struggle to pay their expected family contribution every year.
Some students have even been forced to consider dropping out of school or taking a break from college because of USC’s steep price tag.
That’s exactly what sophomore architecture major Steven Montoya had to do last semester after his family members realized they could not afford what the University expected them to pay.
“After the financial aid package had been applied for my first year, I only had to pay about $2,000, but it turns out that amount is very hard to deal with for my family,” Montoya said. “It came to a point where having to pay that amount was too difficult, so I had to declare a leave of absence last semester.”
Montoya declared the leave of absence as a last-resort option.
“I didn’t [appeal the financial aid award] because I felt like I had done everything I could to help mitigate the costs,” Montoya said. “I feel like if I had asked them again, they would probably say something under the lines of, ‘You should consider private loans,’ which I definitely don’t want to do because of the interest rates being higher and because they don’t have the flexibility of paying them back like the federal loans do.”
Montoya, who is switching from the five-year architecture program at USC to the four-year program, hopes that next year’s tuition increase does not put him in the position where he must take another leave of absence and further postpone his graduation.
“With this recent financial aid increase, I guess it’s going to be a little harder for me,” Montoya said. “I really don’t want to have to [take a leave of absence] again. It interrupts your whole academic path. Even though I am switching over to the four-year program, I know I am still going to graduate with the rest of the five-years. You have a certain pathway you’re going down, and with that leave of absence, you’re just like side-winded.”
The absence of aid
Even though Wan is in a different financial position than Montoya, she is also concerned about USC’s tuition increase for the 2017-2018 school year, because she has taken out loans to pay for her education.
“I do not receive any financial aid from the school, nor do I receive any federal work-study or anything of the sort,” Wan said. “So the only money that I’m getting is loans that I’ve applied for and gotten and will be paying off for many years. Just because I do not receive any financial aid does not mean I can afford to pay the entirety of the tuition.”
Wan represents the portion of students at USC who are not affected by the University’s goal of mitigating tuition costs with financial aid.
“I am taking out a lot of loans, and by Nikias or the administration raising the tuition prices, they are basically just forcing me to pay more,” Wan said.
Although Montoya and Wan are in different financial situations, they both agree that the University’s financial aid system can do more for students and their families.
“The best thing for [financial aid] to do is to really be very sensitive to what families are going through,” Montoya said. “Every family, when they apply for financial aid, [is] going through hardships sometimes. You know, not everyone has the same income levels or the same degree of privilege.”
Natalie Balladarsch contributed to this report.