USC misrepresents diversity numbers for rankings

USC is increasingly diversifying its student body. When USC accepted its Fall 2018 freshman class, 1 in 4 students identify as members underrepresented groups and 2 of 3 students receive financial aid. When the school reports its fall freshman class, it does not have to report its spring admission students. What the University doesn’t tout is that it defers its rich, white students to being spring admits or transfers, which may intentionally inflate its diversity numbers. 

When describing its transfer students, more of the students in the Fall 2018 Transfer Class were white than in the freshman class. Moreover, there’s an ambiguous “international” category in both class profiles that holds 11% of the transfer population.

Curiously, 7% of entering transfers were from preferred European Institutions, which could be where the Trojan Transfer Plan students decide to attend The American University of Paris or John Cabot University in Rome. There are noticeably more legacy students in the transfer class, a difference of 19% to 30%.

What’s more, there is no information on how much financial aid these students received. 

In a 2017 USC admissions blog post, a counselor wrote that all rejected legacies gain the option to join the TTP program, which typically entails spending a year abroad or at a local community college before entering USC as a sophomore. Though not all TTP students are legacies, and not all TTP students are accepted to USC, it’s important to see the relationship between legacy students and their leg-up in the transfer process. 

Timothy Brunold, undergraduate dean of admissions, readily supplied statistics on the Spring Admission and TTP programs, noting that the information is not published anywhere. 

Brunold said the spring admission program started because of  two specific issues. The first is that, by the mid-1990s, the University’s applicant pool exponentially increased, and USC wanted to have more control over enrollment levels without implementing a waitlist, which it feels is unfair to high school students. The second is that the school wants to improve enrollment balances between the fall and spring to fully utilize USC’s capacity for students.  

Brunold said the TTP program is “the University’s commitment to provide counseling and guidance to denied first-year applicants who do not wish to abandon their goal of earning a USC bachelor’s degree.” 

It is important to note that the plan does not guarantee admission. That being said, TTP students have a one-on-one counseling appointment with a USC admissions officer to plan a year that would make them competitive applicants for the following transfer cycle. 

Though those students are allegedly held to the same standard as all other transfer students, it is important to acknowledge that any other student planning to transfer can only access the time of admissions officers in group settings, rather than one on one. 

Moreover, Brunold recognizes that TTP invites mostly legacy students. Annually, TTP students tend to make up about 15% to 20% of the year’s transfer class. 

USC cares about its ranking. A lot. In its reporting that the Class of 2022 broke records for diversity, the USC News reporter barely delves into the merits of the incoming class before mentioning that USC has landed in the top 20 rankings of The Wall Street Journal. The author of the story lauds USC’s rankings for engagement, student-faculty engagement and diversity, among broader factors like graduate salaries. 

USC is a diverse school compared to other private universities, with a student body that is only 30.7% white. But the school should not try to make it out to be more than it is. This is not the first time doubts have been raised about the spring admit and TTP programs. Where there’s smoke, there’s likely fire. 

Brunold said that spring admits are comparable to Fall admits in terms of GPA, standardized tests and financial aid packages but provided no data to back up that claim. To his credit, it is true that the ethnic breakdown of the Spring 2020 cohort of students is rather similar to the Fall 2019 cohort. The TTP ethnic breakdown is shocking in its difference. 

It is not necessarily abhorrent for the school to keep admitting wealthy students. The New York Times recently reported on how the school keeps tabs on wealthy applicants. That is not surprising — the school is a business after all. Those paying the sticker price need to balance out those not paying it and so on. And there are plenty of students who deserve admission that are also coincidentally from privileged backgrounds. It would, however, be wrong for the school to defer those students’ admissions just to inflate rankings. 

A problem is that improving the rankings just attracts more of the elite that USC is trying to defer admission to. It is impossible to imagine the internal struggle that goes on in USC’s admissions office.