On April 7, the Daily Trojan reported that USC intends to raise its tuition by 5% for the 2022-23 school year, bringing the University’s total cost of attendance to $63,468 per year, according to the University’s financial aid website. While the University has yet to publicly announce the increase for next year — only announcing the tuition increase on the University’s undergraduate admission website — the uptick in cost comes at the hopeful end of the pandemic, when unemployment has decreased and more families can afford to pay. This uptick also comes shortly after the news of the class of 2026’s record low 12% acceptance rate, signifying an increase in demand.
However, this increase also represents a significant barrier for many prospective students, disproportionately affecting underprivileged and international students. Although many USC students receive some sort of financial aid, aid opportunities are limited.
As universities saw a rise in a craving for degrees throughout history, they began to monetize that appetite. Recognizing the extent of a prestigious degree’s demand, universities increased the price of education dramatically. In 1975, a four-year degree from Harvard would have cost you an estimated $5,350. Today, that same degree costs upwards of $219,072. While inflation and urbanization, among other factors, can partly explain this disparity, much of it is a result of universities realizing the size of their markets.
As prices continue to soar and a free education becomes an ever-more-distant possibility, we are forced to ask whether education should be considered a commodity or a necessary good. Under our current system, K-12 education is seemingly considered a right of all citizens, while any later education is not, subject instead to market forces. However, this distinction is unrealistic and unreasonable in current times.
A similar debate was underway in the 1830s — but back then, it was about the accessibility of high school. At the time, high school education was not widely available, and the nation began to realize that it was necessary for the expanding workforce. A high school degree was often enough to propel a young adult from the lower class to the middle class, evening the playing field. So, education reformer Horace Mann began the common school movement in an effort to allocate property taxes to public high schools.
Even now, a high school diploma is considered as the highest form of education that should be deemed a public good which is evident in the compulsory education laws that nearly all states have. Nearly 200 years have passed since Mann’s triumph for educational justice, during which the college degree has become more and more necessary as a means of social mobility as the value of the high school diploma has diminished. The vast majority of jobs that allow for social mobility are restricted without a college degree, and a four-year college education is largely considered the standard for “higher education.” Despite these obvious social cues of the need for change, USC’s tuition, in line with other “elite university” tuitions, has only increased in the last 50 years.
Many universities follow a market-like system, in which tuition increases are met with a decrease in demand, such as lower enrollment rates. As a result, these universities employ tuition resets (decreases of up to 50%). “Elite” universities like USC, however, act almost like a luxury good within the higher education system, solidified by annual rankings put out by Forbes, USA Today and other publications. Renowned institutions such as USC are able to survive despite the cost inefficiencies that exist in the market.
Forbes writer Preston Cooper cites this issue as the result of degrees from elite universities being overvalued, an excess of barriers with creating new universities and a lack of regional competitors. There is an incredibly high demand for degrees from these institutions, as indicated by their admission rates, which suggest that the universities could fill their incoming classes at least 10 times over in many cases.
Even during the pandemic, during which the country experienced an economic downturn, USC was the fourth most expensive college in the U.S. on CBS’s most expensive U.S. colleges list — a placement that does not take into account the 5% tuition increase this coming year.
Despite this trend towards more expensive education, a handful of schools have recognized the changing times. In 2019, New Mexico announced that it would be making tuition to all its state colleges completely free for all state residents. This is a drastic and unprecedented change, citing low income levels in the state. The change, which has been in effect since 2019, is proof that free public college education is not only possible, but also necessary in the fight against social injustice.
Addressing inequality is a hallmark of our time. If we do not continue to fight for higher education accessibility, we undo over 200 years of social progress. While private universities such as USC may not have an option to go completely free, these annual tuition increases stand in opposition to the University’s stance on accessible education. As one of the most expensive universities, USC has a responsibility to acknowledge the importance of making education financially accessible.