What’s Life Like as a Student at U.S.C.? Depends on the Size of the Bank Account (Published 2019) (2023)


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What’s Life Like as a Student at U.S.C.? Depends on the Size of the Bank Account (Published 2019) (1)

By Jennifer Medina


LOS ANGELES — Spring breaks in Bali, resort-style apartment buildings with rooftop pools and tanning beds and regular dinners out at Nobu, where a tab for four roommates could easily stretch into four digits. This is life as a student at the University of Southern California.

This is also life as a U.S.C. student: working an overnight shift to earn money for books, going hungry when the campus meal plan runs out and seething as friends presume that a $20 glass of wine is affordable.

The divide between rich and poor students could hardly be more vivid than it is at U.S.C., where the children of celebrities and real estate moguls study alongside the children of nannies and dishwashers.

Now, the college admissions bribery scheme, which has ensnared dozens of wealthy parents accused of bribing their children’s way into U.S.C., has brought renewed attention to class divides on campus — and how different the student experience can be depending on the size of the bank account.

“U.S.C. tries to paint the campus as this beautiful place to enjoy and relish in abundance,” said Oliver Bentley, a sophomore who is among the first in his family to attend college. “There’s this idea that once you enter U.S.C., you’re all on the same playing field. That in and of itself is a lie. I have met these rich kids who have so much that I can’t comprehend, doing things that I can’t fathom.”

Interviews with students on campus from across the economic spectrum show how difficult it is to navigate a university that tries to be a home for all. After decades of attracting some of Los Angeles’s wealthiest families, U.S.C. has aggressively recruited and enrolled students who could never afford the roughly $57,000 annual tuition.

But the reality for many is a microcosm of the economic disparities of the city the campus calls home — and as in the rest of Los Angeles, the vast majority feel ill-equipped to bridge the divide.

The university has made attracting students from all backgrounds a priority and by almost any measure, its recruitment efforts have been a resounding success. The academic credentials of incoming freshmen have steadily risen, and applications to the university are at an all-time high. As U.S.C. has fought to shed its reputation as a playground for the spoiled elite, officials have boasted about its racial and socio-economic diversity: More than a quarter of all students are from underrepresented minority groups, 14 percent of freshmen are the first in their families to attend college, and two out of three students receive financial assistance. The college has one of the largest financial aid pools in the country — more than $350 million, an increase of nearly 80 percent over the last decade.


And yet, as the bribery cases have made clear, the campus remains a place of pervasive wealth, where celebrity, money and status are still a part of daily life. This is the campus of choice for Dr. Dre, who boasted last month about his daughter being admitted on her own merit, without mentioning that he had donated millions for a school building named in his honor. Wealth is so closely associated with U.S.C. that when a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit spoofed the admissions scandal, it opened with a shot of U.S.C.’s central library.

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On the sun-streaked campus, students said conversations focused on a mix of envy and judgment for those with more. Students of all backgrounds said they often silently worried that they were being judged by their peers — either for having too much or not enough.

Mr. Bentley was raised by a single mother in Menifee, a small working-class city about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. When he arrived on campus, he expected to feel comfortable quickly, but instead said he was “completely alienated” because he did not have enough money. Most of his friends now, he said, come from similar backgrounds, “lower middle class or just poor.”

Undoubtedly, there are benefits to attending a private university with a $5.5 billion endowment: gleaming new buildings, access to premier technology, smaller classes. And wealthy students are a fixture at elite colleges across the country — the challenges at U.S.C. are similar to issues faced by students at many top private universities.

“We know when low-income students get to these elite schools, they have a large problem with fit,” said Jessica Thompson, the director of policy and planning at the Institute for College Access & Success. “These schools have built reputations in the world that they are operating to erase class lines, but they are actually sort of hardening the types of inequity they claim to eliminate.”

But whether because of the students it attracts or because of its place in glittering Los Angeles, the campus exudes a kind of singular flashiness. There are also signs that the university understands the buying power of students. In the campus bookstore, one wall is filled with pricey Kiehl’s bath products and an Abercrombie & Fitch welcomes students in U.S.C. Village, a $700 million residential and retail development opened by the university in 2017.

Heran Mamo, who grew up in Portland as the only child of an epidemiologist and a sportswriter who both emigrated from Ethiopia, considers herself middle class. In the last four years, she has seldom hesitated to go out for expensive meals and drinks.

“There’s not a huge culture of saying no to spending,” said Ms. Mamo, who will graduate this spring. “You think ‘I deserve to treat myself,’ and you start fearing saying you can’t do something because you can’t afford it.”

When she has turned down invitations because of money — bypassing a night out or a spring break in Hawaii — her friends have been understanding, Ms. Mamo said. Money is rarely spoken about explicitly, she added, and “people don’t really acknowledge when they’re really wealthy, you usually only find out after a while.”


For many, the freshman residence halls offer students the most exposure to classmates from a broad swath of economic backgrounds. Some students, though, fear those kinds of interactions are fading as some wealthier students choose to live in more costly university-owned apartments during their first year, when the majority of students live on campus.

As at other large universities in urban areas, the vast majority of students live off campus as upperclassmen. In the last decade, there has been a growing number of private homes and apartments marketed to students near campus, where rents can range anywhere between $750 and $2,750 a month. Students at schools such as New York University, Harvard and Yale have a similar range of choices, with the top-dollar options providing the wealthy with more amenities.

Some of the most overt signs of wealth are in the campus fraternity and sorority system, where dues often reach in the thousands of dollars, even before the extra money for exclusive formal parties and the wardrobes required to attend them. (One recent trend: Golden Goose sneakers, which cost about $500 a pair.)

The impact of family income goes beyond campus social life. Wealthier students can easily turn to private tutors when they are struggling in class, and often have built-in access to their parents’ networks, which they can turn to for jobs and internships.

“People know they want to be rich,” Ms. Mamo said. “That’s the goal in mind, it’s just a question of how realistic that is.”

Growing up in Cohasset, Mass., a wealthy coastal community south of Boston, Dan Toomey knew he was well off. “You would be naïve to think you weren’t born into privilege there,” he said. And he knew U.S.C. had a reputation as a haven for spoiled children, but he has seen little evidence of that.

“Everyone is always pursuing different things, doing all kinds of projects,” he said. “We’ve all been told over and over again: you’re going to be poor, you’re never going to make as much as your parents, you’re going to need to move back in with them. So we’re much more financially sensitive than perhaps other generations.”

This year, Mr. Toomey is living at the Lorenzo, which houses about 3,600 students and bills itself as the largest private student housing complex in the country — and the most luxurious. For students who share a bedroom, monthly rent can be $950 a month, but a private room in a two-bedroom apartment can cost more than $2,000. The upscale amenities are a key selling point to attract students; a private movie theater, a beach volleyball court, nightly aerobics classes and a rock climbing wall. Each apartment comes with a 46-inch flat-screen television, and the Lorenzo website boasts of “spectacular dancing waters that come to life in our Bellagio style interactive fountain.”

But not everyone is proud to call it home. Mr. Toomey said he spends far more time on campus than in the building. Tyler Mazaheri, a sophomore, signed a lease before even seeing his apartment in the Lorenzo, because it was the easiest option late last summer. He cringed when he realized it was just a few blocks away from a welfare office. Soon after he moved in, Mr. Mazaheri clashed with two of his roommates because they wanted to hire a maid to clean the apartment weekly.

“There was no way in the world I was going to do that, it was just a ridiculous thought to me,” he said. “There’s a lot that’s unnecessary there — unnecessary marble in the lobby and unnecessary cars coming out of the garage. Under what circumstances do people in college need a Corvette?”


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