Most entering first-year undergraduate students whose families earn less than $80,000 annually will attend USC tuition-free, starting in fall 2020 and spring 2021, President Carol Folt announced Thursday morning. The financial aid expansion will also take owning a home out of the calculation used to determine these students’ financial needs.

Folt said she is excited as this initiative is a big step forward for the university.

“We want to see a USC education that is possible for talented students from all walks of life,” Folt said in an interview with Annenberg Media. “We’re starting here to continue to increase our ability to make it affordable. I think it’s going to have a huge impact on the students that are included.”

Folt acknowledged that USC already gives out some of the most generous aid in the country, totaling more than $375 million.

According to USC’s press release, because of this expansion, the university will increase undergraduate financial aid by more than $30 million each year. Approximately one in three first-year students beginning studies in fall 2020 and spring 2021 will benefit from this new plan.

“More than 4,000 students, when it’s fully implemented, will see close to $45,000 more in aid in the course of attendance at USC,” Folt said.

Folt confirmed that this financial aid initiative applies to neither current continuing students nor incoming transfer students. She also said among entering first-year students, international students are not eligible for these new actions.

This financial aid expansion is in line with one of Folt’s four initiatives she pledged to institute at her inauguration in September 2019. Over the next decade, Folt said she wants to expand affordability and reduce the burden of student loan debt.

The plan is a guarantee that students whose families earn less than $80,000 will receive gift aid equal to the cost of tuition, according to Thomas McWhorter, dean of financial aid. Room and board are not included, but if the student has these additional needs, they will receive additional funds from financial aid.

“USC has been a long-standing leader on access and affordability, but this is going to be a dramatic and important change for middle-income families,” McWhorter told Annenberg Media.

Folt acknowledged this initiative took a team effort, with help from student and alumni leaders, Provost Charles Zukoski, Vice President of Admissions and Planning Katherine Harrington and the USC Office of Financial Aid.

“I think we have people that have been working in admissions and financial aid for a long time. We’re always trying to find the best possible way to support our students,” Folt said in the interview. “We have need-blind admissions, which means that we don’t admit [students] based on their ability to pay. But once they’re admitted, we want to do everything we can to make it possible for them to attend.”

Folt said affordability is a major priority for her and the provost.

“USC is committed to educating the strongest minds, independent of background or ability to pay. For decades, USC has invested in this commitment,” Zukoski said in the press release. “With this new initiative, we will be even better positioned to recruit students from all backgrounds and strengthen the USC experience for everyone.”

Zukoski told Annenberg Media that the university chose $80,000 to match the University of California system and it’s above the median income in both California and the United States. He added that taking home value, which is illiquid, off the calculation used to determine a student’s financial assets will increase the amount of aid that student receives.

USC tuition has been increasing by about $2,000 annually for the past seven years. Tuition for the 2019-2020 academic year rose 3.5 percent from the previous year, totaling $57,256. This was one of the lowest tuition increases in the past decade.

Currently, about two-thirds of USC undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid. For the 2018-2019 academic year, the average need-based grant the university offered was $39,839.

The financial aid expansion is funded through philanthropy, not through a tuition increase. The university will raise money to fund this initiative as it’s phased in year-by-year, according to Folt.

Folt said the tuition increases are based on the cost of running the institution. The president’s office said it could not share at this point whether tuition will increase for the next school year.

Many other universities have similar tuition-free policies, including Princeton, Brown and Stanford.

Stanford recently expanded its financial aid for middle-income families. Beginning in the 2020-2021 academic year, the university will offer students with family incomes of less than $150,000 annually to attend tuition-free.

USC’s initiative is focused on domestic students, which the president’s office said is normal practice in order to phase in a program like this.

At USC, one-quarter of total student enrollment and 13% of undergraduate enrollment are international students. International students are eligible for merit-based scholarships but not for need-based financial aid, according to McWhorter. That’s due to university policy, not federal law, he said.

International students in the U.S. are not eligible for federal aid or loans, but some American colleges offer institutional aid to international students in varying degrees. McWhorter said USC’s policy is that “in order to receive the university’s need-based financial aid, [students] have to be essentially eligible for federal student aid.”

The need-blind admissions policy also does not apply to international students.

“It is fair to say that USC is need-blind for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, but for international students, they must demonstrate adequate financial support in order for us to issue an I-20 form and the student to obtain a visa,” McWhorter wrote in an email response.

Currently, there are five U.S. universities that offer need-blind and full-need admissions to all students, including domestic and international students: MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Amherst.

McWhorter added that the new initiative will not affect the admissions of international students or the awarding of merit scholarships for them.

While Folt’s plan does not currently apply to international students, McWhorter said he would not be surprised if it was expanded in the future.

Folt said these new actions are just the beginning of this journey.

“I want to see this for all of our students and we will continue to try to find aid for other ways to assist to make the experience equitable across all aspects of our student experience,” Folt said.