Outstanding balance: Tuition hike, aid displacement leave students with financial burdens

A graphic of a person with long brown hair and symbols of money and question marks surrounding the top of their head. The figure is wearing a purple top and is set against a light blue background.
(Alexandra Abrams | Daily Trojan)

Kristal Silva dreamed of attending USC since fifth grade. 

Silva tirelessly worked for her acceptance, turning down a full-tuition scholarship at UC Berkeley to attend USC. Now a senior majoring in communication, she no longer feels like her dream has come true. 

Silva said she has experienced a lack of support from the University, and as a first-generation college student, she faces problems with questioning whether or not she belongs at USC. Adding financial burdens on top of that, Silva said, demonstrates the University’s failure to help its students, only uplifting “the elite.” 

To make matters worse, USC raised tuition by 3.5% for the 2020-21 academic year. Full-time students are expected to pay $59,260 — a cost that had been set in stone prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“People are dying. Families are being ruined,” Silva said. “And by [the University] increasing the amount of tuition, [they’re] not even supporting [the] students through this.” 

According to Dean of Financial Aid Thomas McWhorter, the University has a long history of meeting the demonstrated need of all eligible undergraduate students. In an email to the Daily Trojan, McWhorter wrote that two-thirds of all undergraduates receive some form of financial assistance, with approximately 45% of this year’s first-year undergraduates receiving need-based funding. Additionally, some students receive merit scholarships that can help them meet or even exceed their financial needs. 

However, despite the Financial Aid Office’s efforts to meet students’ needs, some students have long faced systemic inequalities in their access to education at USC as a result of their socioeconomic status. These glaring inequities have only become more apparent with USC’s attempts to provide financial aid amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

In order to obtain additional financial aid, students must go through the appeal process. According to McWhorter, there are two main categories of appeal. Students can appeal for a change in income or resources, or a budget appeal. While an appeal for a change in income or resources will generally be met with additional aid, it is not uncommon for students to also obtain increases in loan or work-study. Budget appeals, however, are usually funded with additional loan eligibility. The further addition of loans, Silva said, does not help students whose families make less than $80,000 annually.

“You know what we’re thinking about when we got to sign up for that loan? ‘How the hell am I going to pay this shit?’” Silva said. “That’s what we’re thinking. Am I going to be able to get a job when I graduate? Was it worth coming to this school?”

In an email sent Sept. 4 to those who forwarded the University email templates on behalf of AffordableSC, a campaign focused on demanding change toward a more accessible USC education for all, Provost Charles Zukoski wrote that the University has not cut financial aid this year. According to Zukoski, USC has instead increased its contributions to financial aid, providing $225 million in grant funding this year, compared to last year’s $215 million.

The University, Zukoski wrote, faces a potential revenue drop of $597 million this fiscal year. According to Zukoski, faculty, staff and senior administrators took pay cuts this past spring to alleviate the financial loss. 

“Despite the negative financial impact of the global pandemic, USC continues to provide an excellent education,” Zukoski wrote, “and we will continue to work toward being a more affordable institution for all of our students.” 

Staying home, with scholarship displacement

When the University announced its fall reopening efforts in early June, Ruth, a freshman majoring in biological sciences, decided to stay home in the South. Since Ruth is immunocompromised, she said that she and her parents did not think her going to Los Angeles would be the best decision.

“My parents weren’t very pleased,” said Ruth, who wished to remain anonymous to prevent potential retaliation from the Financial Aid Office. “People were saying it cost the same amount to go online as in person.” 

In an attempt to alleviate need for students who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, McWhorter announced in a University-wide email July 14 that the Financial Aid Office will award $4,000 each semester through the Undergraduate Living-at-Home Scholarship to students who normally receive financial aid for housing but choose to remain at home because of the pandemic. 

“For most of you, it has been difficult to plan for the year ahead without knowing where you will be living in the fall,” McWhorter wrote in the July 14 email. “With COVID cases on the rise in Los Angeles, there continues to be uncertainty in our fall plans, and we realize that is a particular challenge to students receiving financial aid.”

As a result, Ruth decided to opt for the scholarship and stay home for the fall. According to Ruth, her family’s financial situation looks better on paper than in reality. For Ruth’s initial financial aid package, she said the Financial Aid Office expected for her to pay around $60,000 per year — in other words, for every $3 her family makes, they give $2 to USC, Ruth said. 

Ruth’s family filed an appeal to the Financial Aid Office, which later tripled what Ruth originally received with the University Grant — grant funds that may be used for educational expenses like tuition and housing, according to the USC Financial Aid website. On top of her University Grant, Ruth had initially planned to do federal work-study and take out loans. 

After Ruth’s appeal was approved, the Financial Aid Office expected a payment of around $38,000. However, once she received her scholarship, Ruth said the Financial Aid Office reduced her University Grant by $11,000 and rejected her work-study. 

“I see it as they’re literally just shuffling — they’re just renaming my University Grant,” Ruth said. “I’m more understanding about [taking away work study], I’m not understanding the [grant] money [reduction], especially when my dad had called the Financial Aid Office, and maybe he interpreted it wrong, but it was the understanding that we wouldn’t get billed for housing and that my aid wouldn’t change, when that was not the case.”

Ruth was dealing with scholarship displacement, which prevents students from receiving the full value of the scholarships they had earned. Multiple students have confirmed to the Daily Trojan that they received less than $4,000 for the semester, with some students noting that their scholarships were repurposed from their work-study. Following McWhorter’s July 14 email, the University and the Financial Aid Office quietly corrected their language to say that students staying home would receive up to $4,000 this semester, rather than guaranteeing the full amount. 

Ruth called the Financial Aid Office mid-July and was told that students should not be paying less than what they would be paying if they were having an in-person semester.

“They basically said [students] must be reading or interpreting it wrong, which doesn’t sound accurate to me because it’s just numbers,” Ruth said. “I think you would know if you’re paying $4,000 less this semester than before.”

The Financial Aid Office told Ruth that the overall price of an in-person semester is higher, so students are given more aid to cover additional costs like housing and dining. But in a virtual semester, these costs are not taken into consideration; therefore, the overall price is lower. For some students like Ruth who are staying home, however, the Financial Aid Office has reduced their aid in order to get the students to pay the same amount regardless, Ruth said. 

According to McWhorter, the Undergraduate Living-at-Home Scholarship is a need-based grant intended to provide additional gift aid to students. However, federal regulations, which require USC to establish a reasonable cost of attendance for students (whether they reside on or off campus or live at home with relatives), limit the amount of total aid that can be provided.

“We are not allowed to provide aid over the Cost of Attendance and cannot provide gift aid in excess of federal need without jeopardizing a student’s federal and state funding,” McWhorter wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. 

According to McWhorter, the Financial Aid Office is aware of student concerns over securing work-study. However, due to federal regulations, McWhorter wrote that when the Financial Aid Office makes package adjustments to include the scholarship, they have to first remove or reduce federal work-study, followed by changes to unsubsidized direct loans and then subsidized direct loans. 

Not all students who are receiving the scholarship have their awarded loans and/or work study reduced, McWhorter wrote. This depends on the student’s need and the financial aid they were previously offered. For a small number of students, McWhorter wrote that their gift aid already matches their federal need; for example, a student could receive multiple additional scholarships, outside of the Living-at-Home Scholarship, that replaced their loans. In those cases, they are not able to receive the Living-at-Home Scholarship if they choose to stay home. 

Ruth filed an appeal to the Financial Aid Office twice. When she made a second appeal, Ruth noted that her family’s business suffered significant losses due to the pandemic.

“We appealed again, saying sales were down, loans are doubling in medical expenses,” Ruth said. “And then I got rejected.”

According to McWhorter, the Financial Aid Office has seen approximately a 50% increase in family contribution appeals because of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. By early August, it had reviewed nearly 2,000 appeals, with 40% approved. The office also reviewed additional documentation and special circumstances for another 1,000 students to make any possible adjustments prior to releasing their initial financial aid summaries. 

At the end of July, after her second appeal, Ruth found that the Financial Aid Office granted her family a Federal Direct Parent PLUS Loan, which is granted to families who are looking for long-term financing, according to the Financial Aid website. The loan covered more than what she would have needed to pay for this semester, with her family getting around $5,000 back for the fall.

With her financial aid package now adjusted, Ruth said that she does appreciate the way the University handled its coronavirus response with forgoing the reopening; however, she does not think that USC deserved some of the positive news it received following the announcement of the scholarship. 

“When you think of scholarship, you think it’s going to make what you pay less,” Ruth said. “I think that’s the general definition, and what everyone would expect. And so, sure, they did offer that, but it doesn’t actually help with what you pay.”

Photo of a laptop computer with the AffordableSC Instagram website page open. The page’s bio reads “A Campaign to Make USC Affordable and Accessible.”
Students have expressed their frustrations over USC’s increased tuition rate through lawsuits, petitions and social media accounts. (Charles McCollum | Daily Trojan)

For a more affordable, accessible USC

In response to the University’s refusal to reverse the 3.5% tuition hike — a decision made before the coronavirus pandemic forced the majority of the school’s activities and courses online — students grew frustrated with the University for charging more money for an entirely different experience. 

Some filed lawsuits, others created petitions. Incoming students have tried to voice their concerns with USC administrators as well after the latter refused deferrals to a later semester, but as incoming spring admit Nam Nguyen argues, the transfer student situation is one of the most complex issues to contend with at the moment even as he waits another semester to enroll. 

“The administration and their announcements [don’t] give me great confidence of what’s going on — I really wish they would just make a decision and stand by it,” Nguyen said. “That’s made me feel a bit uneasy about what’s going to happen in the coming months at the end of the fall semester when they start announcing things for spring semester that will affect me.”

Over two months ago, Nguyen created a Change.org petition that argues that with the pandemic disproportionately affecting students from low-income and marginalized communities, it would be prudent for the University to expand the Affordability Initiative, which currently grants free tuition to all incoming students starting Fall 2020 whose family’s annual income is under $80,000. In the petition, Nguyen asks for the University to extend eligibility for free tuition to current and incoming transfer students. The petition has amassed almost 1,700 signatures at the time of publication. 

Other students connected with peers over a group chat and discussed their individual expected family contributions compared to prior semesters or the lack of communication from the Financial Aid Office regarding their package. With many experiences following a similar theme, members of the group chat decided to work together to create a unified and comprehensive list of demands for the Office to address.

With a horizontal leadership model that sees representation of students from organizations across campus and in different stages of their academic career, AffordableSC was created to model the movement to demand transparency from universities that has been spreading across the country.

Students in AffordableSC are involved in a variety of roles beyond organizing, whether that be helping with the design of their Instagram statements, writing letters and email templates to the University or researching trends on the financial aid students receive and the rise in tuition over time. 

A noticeable part of their activism model, an extension of their emphasis on horizontal leadership, are several posts showing solidarity with other student groups that have pushed the University and student body to address issues such as anti-Black racism, resources for undocumented students and institutional support for USC staff. 

Connecting with these campus organizations has been one of the most productive experiences in navigating how to structure demands, AffordableSC said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. It has also been a forum to share resources related to mental health and those which benefit Black and Indigenous students and students of color. 

The group requested the interview be attributed to the organization as a whole rather than a single interviewee as a testament to the multilateral configuration of its action plan.

“We are in solidarity with all of these other movements because we know USC has the resources, and for them to use diversity and low-income students as a selling point for the University but not properly giving support … it’s just ironic to us,” AffordableSC said. 

The makeup of the group reflects the wealth and racial disparity at the University, but also the array of voices that have been left to the wayside on issues of financial security and representation. With AffordableSC’s structure and leadership including Black students, Muslim students, first-generation students, undocumented students, transfers and students from the South Central area, the group is largely made up of students of color. 

“Our demands are always evolving,” AffordableSC said. “And so we just want to … get our demands representing the low-income community as best as it can.”

Nguyen praised the group’s efforts and updated his petition last month to draw attention to and lead people to support its demands. 

“I think AffordableSC has the most comprehensive demand list that really calls out USC for a lot of inequity in its financial aid practices that’s made USC inaccessible to lower income, Black, Indigenous, people of color,” Nguyen said. “When I made that update I wanted them to know, like everyone that signed that petition, to go and support their petition instead of signing mine at this point because they have more comprehensive, better understanding of some of the shortfalls, the shortcomings of USC financial aid practices.”

Since its first post on Instagram July 12 elucidating the group’s mission statement to serve first-generation low-income students and to illustrate its solidarity with the @black_at_usc page, AffordableSC sends its almost 1,000 followers breakdowns of the group’s demands in addition to updates regarding housing, an explanation of a student’s EFC and calls to action. 

The support and visibility the page has amassed came with no shortage of sacrifice. While trying to organize as fast but as meaningfully as they could, members attended a multitude of meetings — many of which took place after classes, jobs and other responsibilities — to unify their sentiments. 

“I think this consumed my life,” AffordableSC said. “This is all that I work on. I have my job during the daytime but I know everybody dedicated a lot of their evening times and honestly some of their, what time period … is it the dawn? Like 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. just trying to get everything polished.”

Stylized similarly to the Financial Aid document portal, AffordableSC laid out its demands July 13 in three categories: an expansion and increase in financial aid, a decrease in tuition and  more accommodations for low-income students. 

Some of the action items are policy changes that would completely transform the way the Financial Aid Office calculates, disburses and continues aid packages, including removing home value and equity from the equation, meeting 100% of a student’s demonstrated need entirely through gift aid, providing new emergency grants for low-income students to last an entire academic year and consistently gifting aid granted through the entirety of a student’s time at USC. 

AffordableSC wants the University to stymie the steady growth of tuition by capping future increases at 1.5% and applying them exclusively to incoming classes while current students’ rates remain the same. Following much criticism and speculation over the quality and value of classes in an online format, AffordableSC also urges for a reversal of the tuition increase for the 2020-21 year and a 35% reduction in the same year’s sum because of the pandemic.

The group’s items aren’t just about dollars and cents. In addition, it lays out a plan for a new resource center and allocation of community guides related to Medi-Cal and Cal-Fresh that the Financial Aid Office should deliver to bolster institutional support for low-income students. And to combat the sometimes daunting process of applying for financial aid, the group sees fit that transparent communication and the assignment of a one-to-one ratio of financial aid officers (who have completed sensitivity training) to low-income students can provide guidance and promote cooperation. 

On Sept. 7, AffordableSC expressed its disappointment in Zukoski’s responses to its demands in his Sept. 4 email. AffordableSC wrote in a letter that Zukoski dismissed its concerns and “invalidated the lived circumstances of low-income students.” 

While Zukoski wrote in his email that over $30 million has been committed to the Affordability Initiative, AffordableSC wrote in its letter that USC has failed to provide any reasoning behind why the initiative cannot be expanded to all students. 

Even though need-based grants have increased by 38% in the last five years, according to Zukoski, AffordableSC noted that figure does not mean that aid covers student needs in full. 

“If need-based grants have increased by 38%, we wonder why we have many students among us who have seen decreases in their gift aid throughout their time at USC despite no changes to family income,” AffordableSC wrote in its letter.

AffordableSC wrote that it expects USC to provide a more “transparent and action-oriented” response to its concerns regarding the University’s treatment of low-income students. Moving forward, AffordableSC wrote that USC should stop reiterating facts about financial aid it already knows and instead listen to its concerns. 

“If the resources provided were as sufficient as USC claims, we would not be writing these letters or committing hours of research to put forth genuine concerns burdening the low-income community,” AffordableSC wrote. 

AffordableSC acknowledges that its demands will change based on the needs of students, and one update coordinated with IDEAS at USC to better support undocumented students July 28 reflects that adaptability. The structure of the organization is also flexible  to prevent the possibility of the administration dragging out solutions. 

“We definitely want to keep up longevity so we do have a few freshmen in AffordableSC helping out. That’s how we can have that momentum, to keep recruiting anybody from newer classes, so that this doesn’t die out,” AffordableSC said. “That’s been an issue with a lot of other [organizations] and we hope that it does not happen — AffordableSC is definitely based in both — like, obviously there’s immediate and long-term demands that we have on that list.”