Note: Since many links go to the university website, some information may be outdated since statistics and web pages are updated annually as new students enroll in the school. This was written at the beginning of 2015 and refers to 2014–2015 school year statistics.
Nothing makes a desperate, strung-out high school senior happier than seeing a fat envelope waiting for them in the mailbox with the words “Congratulations!” and “You’ve been accepted.” That joy is multiplied tenfold if the letter is from the student’s top choice school, but more often than not, dreams are crushed and hopes are dashed by the looming price tag. With tuition rates rising faster than financial aid can catch up, middle-class students are forced to forego their university dreams for more financially feasible options such as backup schools, community college, and work to avoid condemning themselves to years of debt and anxiety. This unfairness is worse for students who wish to attend private universities which have high tuition rates that are not always discounted enough by grants and scholarships to be viable options. Due to trends in tuition rates and financial aid, middle-class students are discouraged from enrolling at top private universities, one of them being the University of Southern California.
USC is a private, nonprofit institution located in Los Angeles, California. With approximately 19,000 undergraduate and 23,000 graduate and professional students, it is one of the largest private universities in the country. USC boasts having one of the most diverse student populations with 67% of the demographic either a minority or international student. Moreover, with professional schools like the Marshall School of Business, the Viterbi School of Engineering, and the acclaimed School of Cinematic Arts, USC is indisputably a top tier university with thousands of students making it their first choice.
For the 2014–2015 academic year, 9,225 admitted students were selected from a pool of 51,800 applicants, resulting in an all-time low admittance rate of 17.8%. Of these admitted students, only 3,098 students matriculated to the fall 2014 semester. Such low enrollment can be attributed to many factors but it would be imprudent to deny the influence of costs. USC’s sticker price for tuition and mandatory fees is $48,347, about $6,000 more than the average for nonprofit private institutions. Although most students know that net costs for universities are much lower than the listed ones, this tuition price alone will discourage many from applying. Moreover, USC’s financial aid system is insufficient to supplement attendance for many middle-class admitted students, resulting in their choosing other schools.
Despite claiming that “cost should not be the primary factor in your decision to apply or to attend,” USC’s current tuition and financial aid system makes cost the deciding factor for a lot of applicants, myself included. Because middle class students have too much income to receive sufficient federal, state, and institutional need-based aid and have too little income to finance education on their own, they are forced to settle for lower ranked schools or take out loans that eventually result in excessive amounts of student debt. This is more than just injustice; this is a human rights issue that puts middle class students in danger of falling behind in an increasingly competitive professional world that demands well educated workers. Every citizen has the right to education and must be given an equal opportunity to obtain it regardless of race, gender, age, sexuality, and socioeconomic standing. It is in our fundamental laws and human principles that if student earn education through merit, they should not be kept from it simply because they cannot afford it.
At the center of this issue is the human right to education; as stated in the Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to education…Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit”. Neither the federal and state governments nor the University of Southern California seem to show enough credence to this fundamental ethic. Both groups violate this principle by discouraging and preventing thousands of middle class students from pursuing a schools they desire. For example, in 2013 the top four reasons for high school seniors who were accepted into their first-choice school to enroll elsewhere were related to tuition costs and financial aid. 62.1% of these students denied their top school because it cost too much to attend. These students were denied their right to an equal opportunity to higher education because their socioeconomic statuses became obstacles instead of assets; cost became the primary factor in their decisions to attend. It is the responsibility of the government to recognize and protect the human rights we as people have agreed upon to be essential to our livelihood and development, so it is indisputably wrong of the U.S. and California departments of education to fail in providing middle class students their equal opportunity. Despite being a private institution, USC is not free of guilt; it holds a responsibility to its students to provide accessible, quality education to those who deserve it.
In 1965, the Higher Education Act was created as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s The Great Society to address the concern for university tuition costs. This act established federal student aid policies such as student loans and grants and created programs to facilitate financing higher education by targeting the needs of students, parents, and university faculty. Since then the act has been renewed every five or so years to keep federal policies up to date with current situations. From Title IV of the act came the Pell Grant, PLUS Loans, TRIO, Direct Loans, work study programs, FAFSA, and many other financial aid programs that have tried to alleviate the cost of attending college. However, changes in financial aid policies that resulted in shifting focus on need-based grants to merit-based grants and student loans work contrary to this belief in equal opportunity. Merit-based grants tend to favor wealthier students, and loans merely contribute to student debt. With less funding for need-based aid, Pell Grants cannot help as many students as there are those who need them; only the poorest of students in low-income households are awarded these grants, leaving not enough to cover middle class students who need aid as well. Moreover, due to insufficient funding for need-based aid, Pell Grants have decreased from covering 42% of tuition costs on average to merely 32%. Despite having a law created to address the human right of equal opportunity to higher education, the federal government commits an unacceptable social wrong by failing to adapt its financial aid system to better accommodate middle class needs.
Contrary to popular belief however, total government spending on education has increased over the past decade, not shrunken like popular claims will lead people to believe. Legislative appropriations to higher education are ten times higher today than it was in 1960 even when adjusted for inflation. Though this information can be used to claim the government has played its part in funding higher education for its citizens, the real issue is not necessarily the lack of total funding for education, but rather the decrease in funding per student. Enrollment in higher education has increased by almost 50% since 1995, causing the amount of funding per student to decrease by 25–30% despite the increase in aggregate expenditures on education, which is especially worrying considering the rise in tuition rates over the past decades. Though it would be unfair to accuse the government of neglecting its students in terms of funding, the funding provided is not enough to support the vast majority of students wishing to obtain a higher education.
USC contributes to this social wrong by continuing to raise tuition and refusing to offer financial aid packages that will favor its thousands of middle class applicants. Tuition has increased by about 4.28% annually for the past five years, and though $440 million was spent on financial aid last year (2013–2014 fiscal year), only about 41% of students actually received need-based aid from the institution. Another 39% of students merely received self-help aid in the form of federal loans or work study, resulting in an average student debt of $28,474 , about $6,000 higher than the national average.
USC’s scholarship opportunities also tend to exclude the middle class by solely promoting merit scholarships that tend to favor wealthier students who can afford to have higher quality preparatory education at top-ranked high schools and supplementary institutions. Moreover, several of the continuing student scholarships, if awarded, may alter students’ financial aid packages, resulting in decreases in previously awarded grants. Instead of providing more need-based scholarships and grants that can help middle-class students afford attending USC, the “University of Spoiled Children” unjustly rewards affluent applicants and punishes students for earning departmental scholarships. Middle-class students have the worst deal because they cannot afford the high tuition rates, may not be as academically competitive as wealthier students with better resources, and cannot have their costs covered by need-based institutional grants that are awarded to needier students.
The school justifies its high tuition costs and mediocre financial aid packages by claiming that “USC has advantages that you generally will not find at less expensive institutions” and goes on to list qualities that do not usually appear at lower ranked public institutions. However, Stanford University, Ivy League schools, and MIT are all extremely prestigious schools with all of the qualities mentioned on USC’s financial aid webpage that still manage to provide sufficient financial aid packages that accommodate the plethora of middle income students that apply there. Stanford recently increased the maximum eligibility for free tuition to an annual household income of $125,000, surpassing the standards set by Ivy Leagues with maximum income eligibilities set at $120,000; $100,000; and $75,000. Nevertheless all of these schools reflect the view that “cost should not be the primary factor in [the] decision to apply or attend,” by making quality higher education affordable for middle class students. USC cannot claim that high prices are equated to better education because it is clear that schools with better overall rankings, return on investments, and reputations are able to reduce exorbitant costs for students without sacrificing quality.
There are two different approaches to tackling the issue of USC’s tuition and financial aid: from a human rights perspective or a social justice perspective. The only difference in these two approaches is where progress originates, the government or the university. If addressed from a human rights view, the federal or state government would have to change its financial aid policies to better help the middle class in general. One option is to redirect federal spending from other sectors to education. In 2014, only 3% of the federal budget was dedicated to education while 23% was spent on defense, 26% on health care, and 26% on pensions. The U.S. spends more on military defense than the next fifteen countries combined, coming to a total of about $800 billion a year. This unnecessary spending could be invested in the education of our nation’s children instead of wasteful defense campaigns. However, this proposal brings up the question of federalism; who should have jurisdiction over education? Currently, each of the states is free to determine its own education policies and funding, with the No Child Left Behind Act being the main influence the federal government has on national education policies. Unfortunately, this act has come under attack as a form of federal overreach that encroaches on local and state powers to handle education, but taking away this “broadly based, values-driven movement for a more just and equitable society” will only make it harder to provide equal opportunities to all students since there would be no national standard.
Other options the federal government can consider are changing financial aid policies to better accommodate the middle class. For example, reducing funding for loan programs like the Direct Loans and PLUS Loans can leave more money for Pell Grant funds, which can either be used to raise the cap from $5,730 to help the neediest of students more or expand the eligibility for the grant to help higher income students who are currently unqualified for the grant. A vast majority of people may disagree with this proposal since it seems to take away assistance for low-income students who tend to get the most media attention, but thousands of middle income students are left to fend for themselves when concern is only given to needier students. Injustice towards the middle class is a common occurrence that can be stopped if more funding is given to alleviate their financial burdens. Unfortunately, a solution such as this would incur significant costs to the government which would then translate into increased taxes for the public, something a large number of citizens will fail to appreciate. However, when the issue of education and equal rights is in question, priorities must be reevaluated to ensure that we as a nation uphold our values of equal opportunity, education, and trust in our future generations.
Another proposal is to reduce the “number of questions on the FAFSA by 30 questions, out of the current 108” and take out questions about savings, assets, untaxed income, investments, and net worth. This would allow families to qualify for more financial aid because not as many assets would show up on the application which can be used against them as indicators of non-liquid wealth.
The state of California has Cal Grants and the Middle Class Scholarship as some of its financial aid programs. Each of these can be reformed to better help middle class students attending private colleges. Cal Grants work much the same way as Pell Grants so many middle class families do not qualify for aid because their incomes are too high and there is not enough funding to cover more than the lower income families. Additionally, the majority of Cal Grant eligible schools are public schools, so middle class students wishing to attend private schools may be doubly out of luck. Like Pell Grants, Cal Grants should receive more funding in order to finance more students’ educations.
The Middle Class Scholarship was just enacted and began in the 2014–2015 school year. It covers 40% of tuition for families with up to $100,000 in annual income and at least 10% for families up to $150,000. This sounds like a promising step forward in assisting the middle class but the program only applies to students attending University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) public schools, leaving all of the private school bound students to tackle much higher tuition costs alone. Since the scholarship is still new it is understandable that its scope is so limited, but if California truly was dedicated to its children’s education, it should extend its Middle Class Scholarship to cover private institutions as well.
The other route for addressing USC’s tuition and financial aid issue is from a social justice perspective with USC making changes to help its middle class applicants. One option is to follow in the footsteps of several small and medium-sized private universities and cut tuition prices down to attract more applicants and enrollments. Southern Virginia University and Converse College recently cut their tuition prices to $14,600 and $16,500 a year respectively, uncharacteristic lows for private colleges that can easily compete with public university prices. The major concerns with this option are the perception that high cost equals quality and the loss in revenue from wealthy applicants. Most private universities practice a high-tuition, deep-discount model that allows many lower and some middle income students to forgo tuition payments because the large proportion of wealthy students can pay the full tuition that makes make up for the loss. Though lowering tuition prices all around reflect the net costs many low and middle class actually pay, they will also reduce revenue gained by wealthier students, so this strategy may not work as well with a university like USC that depends on affluent applicants and alumni. Nevertheless, lowering the annual tuition rate increases can be a compromise that is feasible and helpful.
USC, along with about 270 private colleges, employs both the FAFSA and CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE to assess a student’s financial need. The issue with this is that PROFILE is much nosier than FAFSA, resulting in students seeming much more financially equipped than they actually are and receiving less financial aid than they need. PROFILE asks about home equity, the difference between fair market value and outstanding payments for the home, which can boost a family’s EFC, making them pay more than if just the FAFSA was being used since it does not ask about equity at all. USC should cease to use PROFILE so that middle class students are not penalized for having parents who can pay off their mortgages. The combination of high tuition and meager financial aid is a horrible injustice to the middle class, and eliminating PROFILE or at least putting a cap on equity assessment can help rectify it.
One proposal that Erin Rode of The Daily Trojan makes is for USC to emulate the philanthropic financial aid changes made at prestigious private universities like Stanford and the Ivy Leagues. As mentioned earlier, these schools recently expanded the eligibility for free tuition breaks to about $100,000 to better accommodate the plethora of middle income students wishing to enroll. Rode suggests that USC employ a similar strategy by switching from loans to more grants, scholarships, and waivers so that the institution does not drive away talented middle class applicants who do not receive enough aid from the measly grant program currently in place. If USC had middle class tuition breaks like these other institutions, many more students would choose to attend and would not have to worry about student debt and bankrupting their parents. Though USC’s endowment per student is lower than the Ivy League schools, it can still afford to make some financial aid changes by redirecting funds from other sectors, fundraising, and tapping into its famous Trojan network. This is also a less risky option compared to lowering tuition rates since current tuition costs can still be charged to wealthy students.
If USC wishes to be a beacon of diversity, it needs to expand its scope beyond the metrics of race and geography; socioeconomic diversity is paramount to providing an equal opportunity for wholesome education too. It is unfair that so many middle class students are left by the wayside when USC distributes its financial aid packages. Coupled with the institution’s expensive price tag and insufficient government aid, USC’s financial aid system presents middle class applicants a daunting ultimatum: attend and suffer from debt or go somewhere else. There are many ways to address this issue and though USC and the government are not making sweeping progress currently, there are small steps taking us in the right direction. Obama’s free community college proposal, USC delegates trying to stop Cal Grant cuts for private schools, and Democratic plans for expanding Pell Grants all indicate that there is still a concern for the ability of students to afford college. Middle class students may still be getting the short straw, but at least there is hope.