USC $115,000 Online Degree Resulted In Graduates Receiving Low Salaries And Huge Debts


Susan Fowler

Susan Fowler, 2018 graduate, who owes $307,000 in total student-loan debt.

Leah Fleurinor, Staff Writer

The University of Southern California (USC) is a private, non-profit institution located in Los Angeles, California.

USC has attracted students across the country, including low-income minority students with aggressive tactics for recruitment. A majority of the USC students are piled up on debt to afford a large amount of tuition, which last year reached $115,000 for the two-year degree. Those students who were a part of that two-year degree program have never set foot on campus but paid the same payment for online classes as in-person students.

“Recent USC social-work graduates who took out federal loans borrowed a median $112,000. Half of them were earning $52,000 or less annually two years later, a Wall Street Journal analysis of newly released U.S. Education Department data found.” The social-work degree at USC had one of the worst combinations of debt and pay.

Having a Master’s in social work is a requirement for numerous counseling jobs. More than a dozen public universities in California produced graduates with less debt and higher incomes, the data covering 2015 and 2016 graduates show. At California State University, Long Beach in Los Angeles County, graduates borrowed less than a third of USC students and earned a median of $59,000 two years later—about 14% more than USC students.

“I realize now I could have gotten the same job with a much cheaper degree from a different school,” said Susan Fowler, a 37-year-old mother of two, who enrolled in USC’s master’s-degree program because of its prestigious name and the flexibility of the online classes.

Fowler is a 2018 graduate, who loved the program but now owes $307,000 in total student-loan debt, including about $200,000 from the master’s degree. She said she “earns $48,000 as a community mental health therapist in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.”

Taking on significant debt to pay for a social work Master’s degree is possible through the free-flowing availability of federal loans for graduate students. The Grad Plus program, which lets students borrow as much as colleges charge, has provided a valuable revenue stream for universities. They can urge students to take out loans to cover any tuition shortfall, plus money to cover books and living expenses.”

Due to the increasing enrollment of the social-work program, USC has benefited from the federal loan dollars. Graduates from 2015 through 2018 borrowed more than half a billion dollars in federal student loans, the Journal found. “USC had an endowment of $5.9 billion last year, making it one of the twenty wealthiest private schools in the country.”

Sarah Gehlert took over as dean of the social work school on April 15, 2020. She says the school is planning on making moves to reduce the credits required for the program, effectively trimming the tuition by about 25% starting for the new students enrolling in the year 2021.

“I can’t speak to decisions made by previous deans or university leadership, but I am acutely aware of the challenges our school faces and working hard to address them with the highest ethical standards,” Ms. Gehlert said in a written statement.

Christopher “Chip” Paucek, CEO of 2U, said in a written statement that “The company’s goal is to expand access to higher education and advocate for making online programs more affordable. The schools control the price of tuition.”