Shortly after Carol Folt was named USC’s 12th president in March, she conducted an interview with National Public Radio. There, she drew attention to diversity as a priority for USC and for herself.
“We want to get the best students from all walks of life, irrespective of their socioeconomic status,” Folt told NPR.
One such pipeline USC has created to allow students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to attend the University is its Tuition Assistance Benefit program. The program currently allows children of employees who are admitted to attend USC 100% tuition-free and spouses at a 25% to 50% discount. Furthermore, those eligible for Tuition Assistance also qualify for the Tuition Exchange Competitive Scholarship, which allows students to apply for scholarships to a select number of USC’s peer institutions that would greatly reduce their cost of attendance.
Even though this University program is one of “the University’s most appreciated benefits,” according to its employee directory, it leaves an important group out.
Since 2001, USC has subcontracted its custodial services through a company called Aramark. These subcontracted employees, mostly custodians, are an integral part of the USC experience. However, these employees are not considered “full-time, actively at work benefits-eligible staff employed by the University,” meaning that their children are not eligible for the program.
The University can help create pipelines for socioeconomic diversity at USC and serve employees necessary to the University’s daily function by including Aramark employees, their children and spouses in the program.
In 2018, USC custodians, students and faculty carried out demonstrations calling for higher wages and better accommodations from Aramark. Their efforts resulted in a $2.35 rate increase over the course of four years, amounting to $15.50 per hour by 2021. Over 200 families received this minimally improved contract, and if USC’s Tuition Assistance Benefit program were to get implemented, these families would generationally benefit from open access to postsecondary education, creating lasting impact by allowing their employees’ families to become socially mobile.
Two hundred families might seem like a small number compared to the scope of students, faculty and staff in the Trojan Family. However, when Aramark employees are treated as second-class employees at USC, the University makes it clear that some of its hardest working employees aren’t part of that family.
Moreover, the majority of Aramark employees at USC come from Black and Latino communities in Los Angeles — communities historically underrepresented at the college level. Racial minorities often face major barriers to entry to opportunities like higher education, keeping schools like USC predominantly white. By easing Aramark employees’ access to postsecondary education, USC can help build lanes of access to achieve both socioeconomic and racial equity at the higher education level.
It’s become clear that success in the American economy is dependent on workers possessing increasing levels of knowledge, skills and abilities — ones best acquired through higher education. As a result, USC can provide a stimulus for families who couldn’t otherwise afford a college degree and help close the growing opportunity gap present in modern-day America.
A 2013 New York Times study found that USC students’ median family income was $161,400 and that 63% of students came from the top 20% of household incomes in America. While education is considered the road to a better life, its high cost makes it something that is largely inaccessible for lower income families. USC must use its power as an elite higher education institution to create a new ladder of opportunity while expanding its own diversity initiatives.
For USC to acknowledge the needs of its subcontracted custodial staff would be a reparative recognition and a promise of affordability, commitment and open access for some of the University’s most important and undervalued employees.
Folt has the opportunity to take a step back and become a leader in fostering lasting change in modern education.