As prospective freshmen face a May 1 deadline to commit to enrolling at USC, the university has invited a select group of rejected applicants who have legacy ties to the university to enter a program that fast tracks their admission in the next cycle. Participants in an admission program known as the Trojan Transfer Plan are not chosen based on merit alone. Instead, the applicants' legacy status, meaning the past USC attendance of a parent, grandparent or sibling, is considered in the selection process.

The Trojan Transfer Plan option allows recipients to attend a local community college, a four-year institution or spend a year at a USC-specified college abroad in France, England or Italy before transferring to USC. Throughout that year at a community college, four-year institution or abroad, Trojan Transfer Plan students get one-on-one counseling with USC advisers. GPA requirements vary by program—as does cost.

While students at lower cost four-year and community colleges have to score a 3.6 to qualify for Trojan Transfer, those who elect to study abroad in Europe have a lesser standard, with 3.4 GPA required for consideration. The American University of Paris, one of USC's overseas partners explains the GPA requirement is lower for those who study abroad.

"You might notice that the Trojan Transfer Plan typically requires a 3.6 GPA or higher; USC grants a modest dispensation on the GPA expectation given the experiential benefits of living and studying abroad," the website read.

USC is not the only university with a personalized transfer program. Baylor University has "Baylor Bound," and Cornell University has the "Transfer Option", but unlike USC, both have official documentation online and say they are merit-based, rather than being focused on legacies.

In a 2017 USC blog post, admissions counselor Hillary Higgins confirmed that all rejected legacies receive the option when responding to a user's question about who qualifies for the Trojan Transfer Plan.

"I recommend reaching out to your admission counselor. All students with ties to the Trojan Family should receive information about the Trojan Transfer Plan," Higgins wrote.

Here is a screenshot of Hillary Higgins’ response to a user’s question regarding Trojan Transfer Plan.
Here is a screenshot of Hillary Higgins’ response to a user’s question regarding Trojan Transfer Plan.

Megan Ely is a junior journalism major at USC and a producer at Annenberg Media. She spent her first year of college studying at the American University in Paris as a part of the Trojan Transfer Plan. When she received her rejection letter from USC as a senior in high school, she called a friend who had also been awaiting a response from the school. Both students had identical letters up until the final paragraph, where Ely was offered the Trojan Transfer Plan while her friend was not.

According to USC's guidelines, Ely became a part of the Trojan family the day she was born. Ely's grandfather graduated from USC over 50 years ago, her grandmother completed part of a master's program here, and her sister began pursuing a master's degree after Megan Ely enrolled.

Ely also recalls attending a general admissions meeting on campus where her mom asked about the Trojan Transfer Plan, to which the admissions counselor said, "Oh, that's something different for our legacy students so we'll talk to you about it after."

When they spoke to the counselor afterwards about the Trojan Transfer Plan, Ely said "he mentioned that you got to be at the top of the pile."

While studying in Paris, all of the classmates she remembers were also legacy students, though she didn't know everyone. But the program is not a guarantee of admission, as Ely said not all of her classmates were admitted after failing to meet the 3.4 GPA requirement.

"I had heard that their transfer rate was way higher than their freshman acceptance rate, so I was like great, my odds are probably better because of this program," she said.

When she was offered the program, Ely said she was given a sheet of requirements outlining all the classes and grades students needed to be eligible. While the list did not give a direct guarantee of admission, it did say “If you meet the terms of the plan, we will find a place for you. If you do not, we will still consider your application.” The sheet added, “This is not quite a guarantee, but it is a clear, predictable path.”

Statistics for the 2018-2019 year demonstrate that the acceptance rate for freshmen legacy students is 19% and that almost one-third of admitted transfer students are legacies.

Not every student in the Trojan Transfer Program has ties to the university. At least one non-legacy hopeful received this option, and his letter stated that the plan was for those with "ties with the Trojan family."

But Lucas Palmer, a Montana native and applicant in the 2019 cycle, said he was surprised to learn of Trojan Transfer Plan through his rejection letter, as he had no ties to USC at all.

"[It] was surprising to me because I got the rejection letter and it said 'given your ties to the Trojan family' and I was like 'what does that mean?' because none of my family went there. All of my family stayed in state," Palmer said.

Palmer shared his rejection letter with us which includes information about the Trojan Transfer Plan. It read, in part:

“This decision was especially difficult for us given your ties to the Trojan Family. Your eventual enrollment at USC is of great interest to us, so I invite you to consider the Trojan Transfer Plan, which will assist you in gaining admission to USC as a transfer student within the next two or three semesters.”

Palmer, who had an untraditional high school experience with gap years, said he was grateful he received this option."For me, I was expecting to be straight up rejected because of the way that my high school looked, my transcript looked and not having legacy either. I guess it's a very rare thing, but I was happy to receive something like that even though it is not a guarantee and it is not direct admission," Palmer said.

He said he plans on attending his state university but "having another option, if I hate my state school, to be able to go to my dream school is really freaking cool."

The Trojan Transfer Plan also gives prospective students the opportunity to meet individually with a USC counselor to increase chances of admission the next time they apply, per the letter.

"We have set aside time during the summer, during the month of June, for you to meet one-on-one with a member of the admission staff to learn how to maximize your chances of admission for a future term," the letter said.

The USC Admissions Office declined several requests to answer Annenberg Media's questions about the Trojan Transfer Plan. USC media representative Ronald Mackovich issued a statement on the university's behalf.

"The Trojan Transfer Plan is aimed at encouraging promising students from a range of backgrounds—who were not accepted to USC as freshmen—to re-apply as transfer students after attending another academic institution for at least a year," the statement said. "The Trojan Transfer Plan is not a guarantee of admission."

There is no USC webpage publicly outlining the guidelines of USC's Trojan Transfer Plan. A Google search of the phrase "Trojan Transfer Plan" results in websites from other universities, including the American University of Paris, one of the study abroad options for Trojan Transfer Plan participants.

USC has only published a Transfer Planning Worksheet and the aforementioned blog in which users could interact with USC's admission counselors. Students have come to rely on word-of-mouth.

Cheung-Sil Kim, a sophomore who got into USC through Trojan Transfer Plan, said he felt the university was not transparent about the plan while he was going through it.

“There’s really not a lot of information about it whatsoever. Your best resource, both before and during the process, is actually a College Confidential forum,” Kim said, referring to a popular online college admissions discussion platform. “It definitely was very frustrating because of the lack of communication and then you’re making this investment, where they’re telling you some stuff but not really telling you some stuff.”

Kim added that he thought the program gave legacy students the upper hand in the transfer process. “It does sort of feel like an unfair advantage to legacies, but I like to think if I had applied as a transfer anyways I would have gotten in because of my high grades,” he said.

Jerome Lucido, the executive director at USC's Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, said he has not heard of the Trojan Transfer Plan specifically, but did acknowledge that unsuccessful applicants are offered transfer plans. He said that the university policies determine who gets access to transfer options.

"In a highly selective environment, it may not be reasonable to offer such plans to every unsuccessful applicant, as then there would be no ultimate control over the number of transfer admissions," Lucido said. "Therefore, institutional priorities would govern how such a policy would be administered."

Annenberg Media's attempts to verify the requirements for Trojan Transfer Plan come as questions are being raised about fairness in the admissions process. News about the Varsity Blues bribery scandal broke last month, and USC has fired athletic director Donna Heinel and men's and women's water polo coach Jovan Vavic for accepting bribes, while officials such as Provost Michael Quick and General Counsel Carol Mauch Amir have stepped down from their positions as President Carol L. Folt steps into her new position.

The Trojan Transfer Plan isn't USC's only specialized route to admission. USC does have a  webpage about their Neighborhood Academic Initiative, which offers a route to admission for students within three miles of the University Park Campus. The program includes classes on the weekends and college counseling from students starting in 6th grade—they spend seven years demonstrating academic aptitude through the program.

Students who complete the program are granted admission and full funding to attend USC. Since 1991, 378 students have been admitted to USC through the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, averaging 12 students a year.

For the 2018-2019 school year alone, over 400 legacy transfer students enrolled at USC.

Reporters Samuel Arslanian, Piper Hudspeth Blackburn, Kally Daniewicz, Chandler France and Sydney Nebens contributed to this story. 

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Ely said not all of her classmates were admitted to USC after failing to meet the 3.3 GPA requirement. The GPA requirement is 3.4.

Story updated on July 6, 2020: The story has been updated more than a year after publication to reflect that one of the sources, Will Bensky, requested that Annenberg Media use his Korean name, Cheung-Sil Kim, instead of the one he commonly uses as a student.