In a striking recognition that college has become unaffordable for many middle-class students, the University of Southern California announced Thursday that it would make its education tuition-free for students from families with an annual income of $80,000 or less, starting in the fall. It is the latest private college to do so amid growing concern about the rising cost of tuition across the country.
As the major private university in Southern California, USC plays an outsize role in Los Angeles, giving the move high symbolic as well as practical value. Other schools, like Harvard and Stanford, offer tuition-free education or deep discounts to families earning up to $150,000, but they have much bigger endowments.
USC’s president, Carol Folt, who was hired last year, said the offer of free tuition would help the university compete for lower-income students who might otherwise attend California’s public system, which is relatively generous with financial aid and offers significantly lower costs.
“More students who want to come to USC will be able to choose that,” she said.
The university will also take into account the skyrocketing value of housing in Southern California; owning a home will no longer be counted in the calculation used to determine a student’s financial need. High real estate prices can exaggerate the wealth of families who have a large part of their net worth tied up in their homes.
“People work so hard to have a house,” Folt said, “and we didn’t want that to count against their chances of having their kids going to the school.”
In the last decade, USC has worked to become a top-tier academic institution, but the elite private campus of 44,000 students in the heart of LA has also been rocked by scandal, including revelations that a longtime head gynecologist of the university’s health center had been accused of sexual misconduct and the resignation of the dean of the medical school over allegations of drug use on campus.
Then last year, dozens of wealthy parents were accused of bribing their children’s way into the school, bringing renewed attention to class divides on a campus where the offspring of celebrities and real estate moguls study alongside the children of nannies and dishwashers.
“It’s fitting that USC, which was at the center of the Varsity Blues scandal, would take this important step,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who studies college costs for low-income students.
But he said offering more financial aid would not be enough to increase diversity on campus unless it is coupled with other admissions reforms, like a willingness to give low-income students a break on SAT scores, which strongly correlate with income.
“You can have the most generous financial aid in the world, but if low-income students aren’t admitted, socioeconomic diversity won’t rise,” he said.
USC’s announcement comes amid a national push to make college tuition more affordable. About 42 million borrowers owe $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loans across the U.S., experts said. Wiping out student debt and providing free college tuition have become major points of debate in the presidential campaign.
Continually rising college costs mean that debt load isn’t likely to drop much in the next few decades. The average student borrower takes out about $26,000 in loans over the course of earning a bachelor’s degree — debt that is impossible to discharge in bankruptcy, difficult to have forgiven and increasingly unlikely to be fully repaid on schedule.
Tuition at USC was roughly $57,000 this academic year, with the total cost of attending — including housing, food and books — reaching almost $77,500.
While acknowledging the need to help more people afford college, Folt defended the high cost, saying it was an outgrowth of the many opportunities for research, travel and learning that an institution like USC provides.
“It’s expensive to do,” she said. “Wherever we can make it so the cost is not prohibitive, I think that’s where we focus our efforts.”