USC’s tuition hike is indefensible and morally irresponsible

This is a photo of the fountain at the center of Alumni Park at USC. In the background is Doheny Memorial Library, partially in the shade on a bright sunny day.

In spite of students’ changing economic statuses, USC maintains its 3.5% tuition increase that was announced before Fall 2020 classes would start completely online. (Daily Trojan file photo)

Students returning for the fall semester will face a slew of challenges when classes resume. For those returning to campus, the looming threat of the coronavirus will hang over virtually every decision they make. Those who opt to attend online classes while staying home will face the threat of the virus along with a unique set of challenges that come with attending class remotely. 

In addition to these hardships, students will be tasked with shouldering the burden of a national crisis unprecedented in scale. Unfortunately, USC has shamelessly decided to pile onto it rather than alleviate its students’ burden, maintaining a previously announced 3.5% tuition hike for the upcoming academic year. 

USC is no stranger to shameless behavior — any student or Trojan alumnus knows this much. The seemingly never-ending headlines regarding rampant criminality and willful ignorance within the University’s top ranks speak for themselves. Still, the University’s decision to raise tuition stands out in its overt indifference to the well-being of its students. The hike is indefensible and runs counter to the University’s virtuous rhetoric amid the pandemic.

In April, the University justified its tuition hike in a statement emphasizing the “reality” that USC found itself in, a reality in which the costs of running the University increased while the ramifications of the pandemic meant increased spending on health expenditures and financial assistance. That is all well and good, but USC’s statement failed to acknowledge a coexisting reality, that of its top executives’ exorbitant salaries. 

President Carol Folt’s annual base salary is $1 million. If the base salary of previously disgraced USC deans are representative, then USC’s academic deans and top executives are making upwards of $600,000. In response to the pandemic, the University announced a 20% pay cut for Folt and a 10% pay cut for USC’s senior leadership. Though the University might hope that the cuts speak to the selfless nature of USC’s leadership, they instead speak to its greed and dissociation from reality. 

Folt will still make at least $800,000 after her pay cut while USC foots the bill of her new $8.6 million Santa Monica residence (although this purchase represents a downsizing from the previous, more expensive president’s property). Assuming the aforementioned salary of USC’s senior leadership is accurate, not a single member of the university’s top brass will fall out of the top 1% of earners in Los Angeles after their pay cuts. 

The wealth of USC’s alumni must not be forgotten, either, and nowhere is this wealth greater than in the pockets of Rick Caruso, chairman of USC’s Board of Trustees. As his title suggests, Caruso is one of the most influential figures in USC’s senior leadership, and his fortune could make up for USC’s pandemic-induced operational shortfall at least 11 times over. 

Simply put, USC’s leadership cannot cry wolf and point to its own financial hardships in light of the obscene levels of wealth it has at its disposal. This justification is more than just weak; it is laughable. The aforementioned figures, coupled with nearly $20 million in federal relief and a $5.7 billion endowment, make the school’s tuition hike inexcusable. 

USC tends to cast itself as a force for social good in the United States and the local L.A. area. According to its mission statement, USC provides public leadership in areas such as economic development and social welfare while playing a major role in the development of southern California and the United States. 

In Folt’s April State of the University address, this self-aggrandizing rhetoric was echoed, and the president made sure to emphasize that USC’s students were in her thoughts.

“Above all, we want to make sure that all our students continue to dream big and act boldly,” Folt said. “You are needed more than ever […] and we’re going to work with you to make your USC experience rewarding and successful in the face of so much uncertainty.”

The idea that President Folt can reconcile this sentiment with the University’s tuition hike is inconceivable. She is lying through her teeth — telling students that USC cares about their suffering while simultaneously bleeding them of as much tuition money as possible.

The racial disparities that will be exacerbated by the tuition increase cannot go unmentioned. According to the NAACP’s Young Adult Committee, such increases could have disproportionate effects for Black students, who default on student loans at five times the rate of their white peers. 

Following the killing of George Floyd, Folt issued a statement in which she affirmed USC’s “call to action” to deal with racism. She also acknowledged the disproportionate lack of access to care the Black community has faced during the pandemic. Considering the circumstances, Folt is either oblivious to the disproportionate harm USC’s tuition hike will likely inflict on its Black students or she simply does not care.

Nevermind the fact that more than half of all U.S. college students can no longer afford to pay their tuition. Nevermind the fact that the quality of USC students’ education will decline just as the dollars paid for it increase or the fact that other universities comparable to USC, such as Georgetown University, have frozen and even reduced their tuition because of the suffering brought on by the pandemic.

It is apparent that in the minds of USC’s leadership, flowery statements akin to inspiration porn are the answers to students’ woes over effective, tangible action. 

Correction: A previous version of this article contained a misleading fact regarding President Carol Folt’s residence purchased by USC. Folt’s $8.6 million Santa Monica home was a downsizing from the previous president’s residence. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.