At USC, what does diversity really look like?

Art by Grace Cillo | Daily Trojan

At USC, non-U.S. citizens don’t qualify for financial aid.

Xiaoyue Zhang, assistant director of the International Student Assembly, is concerned that this reality might stunt economic diversity at the University — peculiarly, all while boosting its racial diversity.

It’s a concern that seems to undress the prevalent notion that diversity on college campuses is a monolithic goal, that racial diversity neatly equates to economic diversity and vice versa. Policy at USC around financial resources for non-U.S. citizens poses new questions about the intersectionality of diversity, and how to measure USC’s progress in opening up its campus to as many different students as possible.

Racially, but not economically diverse?

Zhang thinks that though the  population of international students at USC has positively contributed to racial diversity at USC, it has also helped the University retain its reputation for economic privilege and elitism.

“While USC talks about its diversity, a lot of people just say it’s a university of spoiled children,” Zhang said. “In terms of country representation or the amount of international students on campus, I would say USC is diverse. But if you separate it in terms of lower income and high income, medium income, it’s not diverse at all for international students.”

And yet, the U.S. News and World Report’s 2018 rankings released in September offered another perspective. The report ranked USC fourth in economic diversity among national universities, which measured economic diversity in terms of the percentage of undergraduate students receiving Pell grants.

USC’s fourth-place ranking in economic diversity is comparable to its eighth place in ethnic diversity alongside UC Berkeley, which ranks second in economic diversity, and Harvard University, which ranks fifth in economic diversity. USC’s racial and ethnic breakdowns were also an acknowledged factor in The Wall Street Journal’s 2016 decision to rank USC as the 15th best college in the nation.

These numbers paint a bright picture of inclusivity at the University — but this may be an incomplete one.

The effect of financial aid

A plurality of USC’s student body attends the University with the help of federal and university financial aid.

Statistics from the 2015-2016 academic year show that 59 percent of all undergraduate students received an average of $35,059 in financial aid. Half of USC’s undergraduate student body applied for financial aid, and of the University’s 2,948 full-time freshman students enrolled in Fall 2015, 1,880 — more than half — received federal work-study, grants, loans and scholarships.

USC offered grants, loans and scholarships to 1,776 members of the Fall 2015 freshman class. The University’s Fall 2017 freshman class consists of 17 percent first-generation students; this statistic falls just below Stanford’s 18 percent and UCLA’s 21 percent.

But not everyone is included in these numbers.

According to the University’s financial aid website, international students are not given need-based financial aid. Instead, international students are only eligible for merit-based scholarships and can apply for on-campus or off-campus jobs (not work-study).

USC’s policy is different from those of other American universities like the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Amherst College, Yale University and Harvard University, which offer financial aid packages as needed to any students who are admitted.

According to numbers reported by Harvard University, its international student body receives as much financial aid as its domestic student body. Amherst College does not offer merit-based scholarships and operates solely through a need-based system which applies to its international student body as well.

Kirk Brennan, director of undergraduate admissions, said that admissions for international students at USC cannot be completely need-blind, as federal policy requires international applicants to apply for F1 student visas. This process requires proof that these applicants can afford to attend university for a year in the United States with their own income or with scholarships and aid from the university they will attend. Brennan said that  in turn, USC must consider whether or not international applicants can obtain the visa, or what their financial needs are to obtain the visa and attend the University.

“They will often mention in the application, ‘Hey, I’ve got $40,000, I need, $20,000, or $30,000 more in assistance,’” Brennan said. “So, sometimes they’ll get that number in the form of a scholarship, and if they don’t, then it is difficult to still offer admission to a student if we know they can’t even get a visa to attend here.”

But Brennan said that international applicants who have not demonstrated financial ability to attend USC may still be admitted.

“Sometimes we want to simply make them that offer, and hope that they can somehow make up the difference,” Brennan said. “Sometimes we feel that they should know we really want them, but know that we may not be able to enroll them given that environment.”

Other universities are able to offer more comprehensive financial aid packages to international applicants and instate need-blind admissions practices for them, Brennan conceded. But USC does not have the same resources as these institutions, he said, and part of this is because of the economically diverse backgrounds of the students that USC admits.

“Other schools have resources to provide need-based financial aid to more students than we do,” Brennan said. “I think we have very sound, fair financial aid policies at USC, but some schools have more wealth per student, and they’re able to share that more broadly with incoming students, and can consider international students in that way.”

Ultimately, Brennan said that in its international recruitment process, USC clearly publicizes options for merit scholarships, on- and off-campus work and other resources available to international students with financial need.

And yet, Zhang remains skeptical. She acknowledged the resources that are available to students on paper, but is adamant that in practice, these resources just aren’t enough. To Zhang, it’s simple: The University is hurting itself by maintaining a non-inclusive financial aid system that may prohibit qualified international students from attending.

“The tuition prevents some better, more qualified students who can’t afford it from coming here,” Zhang said.

A close connection

To Tim Brunold, dean of undergraduate admissions at USC, accessibility to higher education is an intersectional issue.

“In the United States, wealth inequality continues to increase, largely along racial lines, and as such, we know that expanding educational access and improving racial and ethnic diversity tends to result in increased economic diversity, and vice versa,” Brunold said.

Kameron Hurt, a pre-college admissions specialist at USC’s Center for Black Culture and Student Affairs, spoke of diversity on college campuses as a microcosm of broader national political dialogues — namely, concerns that the discussion around race, gender and “identity politics” hurts low-income white communities.

While Hurt acknowledged that universities like USC should work on opening its doors to low-income white families, he questioned how discussion of racial diversity could even be separated from discussion of economic diversity at all.

“We should work on expanding poor, white access to this school, but at the same time we have to understand that however hard we work on that, we have to work really, really hard on boosting the numbers of poor minorities,” Hurt said.

Yet, Hurt said that racial diversity complements economic diversity generally.

“I think they should really go hand-in-hand, because as you increase that economic diversity, you’re going to look back and notice that you’re recruiting more and more people of color,” Hurt said. “As you increase the economic diversity, there will be a correlation with racial diversity.”

Jonathan Wang, director of USC’s Asian Pacific American Student Services, is skeptical of the potential consequences of suggesting that students of color are monolithic, and all come from low-income backgrounds. According to Wang, USC and other universities are populated with students who are middle-class or wealthy, but still have unique needs on the basis of their racial identity that must also be met.

“We have students who are both well-off and students of color,” Wang said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t serve them in the same way we serve students who are not students of color and who are of low socioeconomic status.”

To Wang, this could be summed up in two questions.

“When we just focus on students of color who are low-income, does that mean we negate students of color who are not low-income? Does that negate students who are low-income but not students of color?”

Graphic by Jenny Chung | Daily Trojan

An overlooked group

According to Wang, students of color come from diverse economic backgrounds. Students of color who are not low-income and low-income white students exist at the University, advocates argue, and both have significant needs.

But undocumented students constitute a unique group in the discussion on the relationship between racial and economic diversity. Many are students of color, and many shoulder the economic barriers that come with lack of citizenship.

Undocumented students are ineligible to receive federal financial aid, and according to the College Board, in most states, they are also ineligible to receive state financial aid. Every year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school, according to the most recent data from the advocacy group Educators for Fair Consideration, but only 10,000 of them graduate from college.

On top of the financial barriers posed from lack of financial aid and scholarships that only consider U.S. citizens, legal barriers such as the threat of deportation also threaten this community’s access to higher education.

According to Sonia Chavez-Meza, director of cultural affairs of the Latinx Student Assembly and a student worker at El Centro Chicano, these policies are not the only barrier for undocumented students seeking higher education.

The stigma surrounding undocumented people in U.S. colleges prevents circulation of crucial information about available resources, such as merit-based scholarships from private organizations. Chavez-Meza said that even El Centro Chicano, which was created to offer Latinx students resources, doesn’t have experts specifically to help undocumented students procure financial aid. Instead, she thinks undocumented students are often left to fend for themselves.

“A lot of the resources are really scattered and put together by other students from their hard work and real effort, rather than the University,” Chavez-Meza said. “I don’t know what sort of aid they give. I know for a lot of colleges the requirements are high GPA, and being a U.S. citizen, so if you’re undocumented you couldn’t really apply for a lot of scholarships.”

Some advocates have a solution

“I don’t know what sort of aid USC gives to undocumented students,” Chavez-Meza said. “I know for a lot of colleges the requirements are high GPA, and being a U.S. citizen, so if you’re undocumented you couldn’t really apply for a lot of scholarships.”

Chavez-Meza thinks that a lack of awareness about what is available to undocumented students may be a problem in itself, like legal and financial barriers to access. But unlike those, this problem has a clear solution.

To her, that means opening up an undocumented student resource center at USC or, at the very least, publishing visible, accessible informational pages on the University’s website specifically dedicated to financial and legal resources for undocumented students.

Until USC formally establishes one, she is concerned that economic barriers on the basis of students’ race and nationality will continue to stint campus diversity.

On his website, USC Provost Michael Quick lists contact information for offices that students with financial need or situations affected by changes in state and federal policy can reach out to. Some of these offices include the Gould Law Immigration Clinic, the Financial Aid Office and Office of Religious Life. Vanessa Gomez Brake, associate dean of religious life at USC, believes these different resources are enough to meet student needs.

“While we do not have a resource center for undocumented students, USC has taken a strong stand in support of all students and staff members, regardless of immigration status or their nation of origin,” Brake said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “As the point person for immigrant and international students, I support students one-on-one in navigating our campuses many resources.”

Resources on campus

Kameron Hurt of CBCSA said he believes “welcoming diversity” is more than accepting certain numbers of poor or minority students — it’s ensuring they have the resources to graduate and have a positive academic experience throughout their years at USC.

“Saying that the school appreciates and welcomes diversity is one thing,” Hurt said. “But then, if you’re not able to meet the needs of that diversity, of those people beyond just letting them into the school, then allowing them to continue and flourish at the school would be actually welcoming diversity.”

He hopes to see more interaction between administration and the different, student-run cultural assemblies that host events catered to their respective groups. On top of this, Hurt believes the University must widen access to not only financial aid and scholarships, but also everyday living necessities such as textbooks and food in Los Angeles, a city that Business Insider ranked the second most expensive in the country in 2016.

Hurt believes that diversity requires resources, focus and attention to be upheld. But Brunold views diversity as a crucial resource to the student body in itself.

“A heterogeneous academic environment provides improved opportunities for meaningful discourse, expanded learning and creative problem solving,” Brunold said. “Diversity is absolutely critical.”

Jonathan Wang of APASS agreed that diverse college campuses not only have more to offer, but also prepare students for the challenges and experiences of real life in ways that campuses lacking in diversity simply can’t.

“I think campus would be very boring if everyone were the same, if we only took one type of student from one background,” Wang said. “It would be just a very homogenous campus that wouldn’t challenge us to meet the demands and needs of our society.”

When Hurt visits local, predominantly black and Latinx schools around USC to engage with students and help them see themselves at USC, he finds himself thinking about the future.

To Hurt, USC has more power than it realizes in expanding racial and economic diversity and empowering low-income and minority individuals not only on its campus, but also in society at large. But according to him, the University must either actively choose to be a part of this large-scale reform, or continue to maintain an existing status quo of inequality.

“We know that getting a degree from USC has a high correlation with economic success afterward, a higher chance of getting recruited by a job, connections,” Hurt said. “If we continue to only extend those connections to the families that already have connections and are already wealthy, then we’re just going to perpetuate the same cycles instead of helping to actually uplift those in need.”