POINT: Without transparency, tuition increases are unsustainable

Sonali Seth | Daily Trojan

Since I came to USC four years ago, tuition has increased by a whopping 16 percent — four times the inflation rate. When I was a freshman, the sticker price of tuition for the 2014-15 school year was $47,562. Now, according to the USC Schedule of Classes, it’s $55,320.

But if USC is concerned about its rising cost of attendance — one that is already extraordinarily high — then it’s not communicating that to students. Current students were not even formally notified by USC of next year’s tuition increases; instead, it was hidden in the USC Schedule of Classes for prospective students. To students, that institutional silence speaks volumes. But the issue of transparency obfuscates the much more pressing and concerning issue of faithfully rising tuition rates: The increases are significant, and the increases have been increasing — though it’s worth mentioning that next year’s tuition increase is lower than last year’s tuition increase — and students should not simply be forced to accept them.

USC stated that the increased money brought in by raising tuition would go toward offering more financial aid. However, students were not provided with any specifics regarding how financial aid would be updated or where the rest of their tuition dollars would be allocated. 

Each year, when tuition increases again, there is a sense that this is urgent, necessary and temporary. But if the tuition rate has increased over the past 10 years at 3 to 4 percent annually, that is not a small or linear increase. Instead, administrators and students must be faced with the reality that it amounts to an unsustainable ballooning of the cost of attendance.

As previously mentioned, USC’s biggest argument in favor of raising tuition is that it offsets increases in financial aid.  A press release last year when tuition increased reads: “USC keeps tuition increase near historic lows and boosts financial aid.” In theory, this redistributive system — charging sticker prices to wealthy students to allow low-income students to come — is laudable. In fact, it’s an innovative and imaginative solution to the quandary of how to lower barriers for low-income and first-generation students while maintaining high quality faculty, facilities and resources. And if USC’s claim that the offsets to financial aid meant that last year’s tuition increase really only increased the average net price of a USC education by 1 percent is true, then that’s not so bad. But it doesn’t take into account distributional effects; Daily Trojan reporting shows that, in practice, this system can have the effect of squeezing middle class students who feasibly can’t afford tuition, but don’t receive financial aid, either.

Yet, focusing on the distribution of financial aid is ignoring a much bigger problem. Just over the past 10 years, the tuition rate has increased by a mind-blowing 46.7 percent, or $17,627 per year. In sum, 2018 four-year graduates paying full tuition are paying over $70,000 more for their undergraduate education compared to four-year graduates paying full tuition just 10 years ago. That difference is more than what the median Los Angeles County household earns in an entire year — and it isn’t all accounted for by increased financial aid.

Students are left scrambling to understand why tuition is increasing at four times the cost of inflation, especially with USC’s robust fundraising efforts. President C. L. Max Nikias’s Campaign for USC set the shockingly ambitious goal to raise $6 billion for the University, and completed its goal 18 months ahead of schedule. The University earned the fifth-highest total in cash gifts in 2017 among all other universities, according to the Council for Aid to Education. So the University is experiencing a significant cash inflow, but it is still raising tuition.

While it’s unclear what exactly tuition increases fund, USC News reports that USC donor fundraising goes toward financing the University endowment, research and new buildings. To anyone that has stepped on campus just five years ago, USC’s commitment to buildings is clear — take the new and formidable $700 million USC Village, as well as new academic buildings Fertitta Hall and Popovich Hall.

It’s nice to be at a beautiful university, but it’s time for USC to ask itself what kind of institution it wants to be. USC’s place in the top 10 list of U.S. News and World Report’s Most Expensive Schools list; the U.S. News and World Report also ranks USC No. 22 nationally, but No. 40 for “Best Value Schools.” And while the value of a USC degree can still outweigh a sticker price of over $200,000, the University needs to draw a line in the sand — at which threshold will it decide to stop increasing tuition by thousands of dollars each year?

This is where students need to step in and make our priorities known. We already have a beautiful and functional campus. What we need is a more equitable institution that makes its consideration of students’ financial burdens clear. 

Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been updated for clarity.