Kenneth Wilson is a USC student. Or he used to be.
Wilson entered the University of Southern California in fall 2015 as a freshman mechanical engineering major. He came from a town in rural New Jersey, home to parents he described as "very, very controlling." Moving to California for college was a dream come true.
"USC was the perfect college experience. It had everything I wanted," Wilson said.
But after less than nine months at USC, Wilson found himself forced to tell his friends that he wouldn't be back in the fall.
When he went to college, Wilson's father took out student loans that, while rather small in the beginning, would later amount to over $200,000 in debt after years of being deferred. His job at Verizon pays well, but the burden he faces is enormous, and his wife's income isn't large enough to make much of a dent.
"I never realized how much my parents make. We don't live like they make that much because of all the debt that my parents are in," Wilson said. "So when I came to school I was like, 'OK, I'm going to get financial aid,' and then they told me, 'No you're not.'"
The lack of need-based financial aid available to him meant that Wilson would have to borrow student loans for any major college expense, leaving him part of a cycle that he fears many students may be in.
"My dad makes too much, so we're not considered to have financial need. But he has all those loans, so we can't actually pay for school. So now we have this dilemma where there is just no money for me to go to school," Wilson said. "And that's a cycle that now we're having to repeat, because now I have to have a bunch of loans, and … the loan companies thrive off it because it forces every generation of that household to take out loans every time."
Wilson was awarded a full-ride scholarship to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which his parents hoped he would attend. But with his sights set on California, Wilson chose USC after a tense debate with his parents.
"NJIT was pretty much none of what I wanted. Not to mention it was in New Jersey, 45 minutes from my house," Wilson said. "So I came here [to USC] after a lot of fights. I [had] committed to NJIT … because my dad wanted me to. I ended up coming here."
At first, the choice seemed to work out. Wilson and his parents took out student loans which, combined with outside scholarships and a bit of financial aid, minimized their out-of-pocket expenses.
As a resident of New Jersey, Wilson took out loans with the state's Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA), an agency that offers grants, scholarships, 529 savings plans, and loans to assist students in paying for a college education. His parents cosigned the loan for his first year at USC because he wouldn't have been eligible otherwise.
Wilson tried to make the most of his freshman year at USC. He joined a fraternity and the a cappella group UnderSCore. He attended concerts, took trips to the beach, explored restaurants in Koreatown, and rushed to see Beyoncé when she visited the University Park campus.
But when Wilson applied for HESAA to finance his sophomore year, he was rejected. He and his parents were no longer considered creditworthy.
When asked about the factors that HESAA considers for granting student loans, the agency told Annenberg Media in an email that it "evaluates borrowers and cosigners based on many factors, including income, existing debt and credit score; these factors can change from one year to the next."
Specifically, borrowers for its New Jersey College Loans to Assist State Students must have an income of at least $40,000 and a credit score of 670 or higher. A maximum amount of debt was not specified.
Wilson first turned to the USC Financial Aid Office, hoping to earn more need-based aid. But the office wouldn't consider his parents' debt when crafting his financial aid package.
According to policy posted on the university's website, the Financial Aid Office may take into account changes in income or "extraordinary expenses," but "consumer debt" accrued by parents is not considered cause for an increase in student aid.
For Wilson, this meant that his parents' relatively high income kept him from getting more aid despite their student loan debt. Their choices over the years led to a situation in which he found it impossible to remain at USC.
When asked about cases like Wilson's, USC Financial Aid Dean Thomas McWhorter said, "USC meets all demonstrated financial need. While we meet the demonstrated need of our students, I am also concerned when I hear about these students." He urged any student with concerns to contact his office, which fielded over 135,000 calls last year.
Beth Akers, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy in the Brookings Institution, wrote that government-run student loan programs and other forms of financial aid exist to correct for a "failure in the credit market" caused by the risk inherent in student loans. But even this form of funding has failed Wilson, who finds himself without sufficient aid from his university, private parties, or state and federal governments.
Wilson said that his parents' debt remained relatively unchanged from the previous year aside from their cosigning his $40,000 loan to fund his freshman year at USC. Apparently, that new debt was enough to make lending to the family unpalatable to HESAA. And without additional aid from USC, Wilson was stuck waiting for a miracle.
It never came.
Not Quite 100 Percent
A little more than a year ago, Giovanni Moujaes also found himself faced with leaving USC.
The broadcast journalism major, now a rising senior, spent hours on transfer application essays in what he called one of the "worst points in my life" in a Daily Trojan letter to the editor dated March 22.
His parents' retirement plan had increased in value from the previous year, and as a result the USC Financial Aid Office did not renew the grants they had given Moujaes his freshman year.
"It was unfortunate because being financially secure penalized us," Moujaes said in an interview with Annenberg Media. "By not taking financial risk, we actually ended up losing money."
Like Wilson, Moujaes tried to make the most of his USC experience. He worked with Trojan Youth Soccer League, Residential Student Government, and the USC Alumni Association in addition to his aims as a journalism student.
"I was just eat, breathe, and live USC," Moujaes said. "And for me, knowing that I'd poured so much into the brand of USC and yet I didn't feel like I was getting anything back from it … that was very hard to take. Knowing that I'd have to start all over was something I wasn't prepared to do."
In the end, Town & Gown of USC granted Moujaes a scholarship that enabled him to stay at the university. But the experience left him feeling betrayed and with a distrust of the university's claims about financial aid and cost.
"I feel like I was misled by the financial aid department [to] feel like I had a secure and not so varying financial aid package throughout my four years," he said. "I don't want to put myself in the same boat as a lot of people that are scraping by, [but] … no matter who you are, you should not have to put your family's future financial stability at risk … to go to the college of your dreams."
USC has come under fire in recent years for its high cost of attendance, with tuition alone topping $50,000 for the coming academic year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the median tuition in 2014-15 for a private nonprofit university was $31,370.
But nearly two-thirds of USC students don't pay the full price charged for their education, and none pay the full cost of providing it, which is nearly 40% more, according to the university. USC allocated over $300 million in financial aid last year, according to McWhorter, and the returns on students' investment in USC are better than average. An undated chart on USC's website shows the average debt of its graduates as $24,034, lower than the $28,950 national average and $32,600 average for graduates of private colleges.
But even with such an extensive financial aid program and the university's promise to meet 100 percent of students' financial need, Wilson, Moujaes, and others like them were left in the dust. These students are evidence that there are other factors in one's financial situation that go unconsidered—ones that the current financial aid criteria don't address.
A Mere Taste
To students for whom the financial aid system falls short, the feeling of being stuck can be hard to handle. When Wilson confirmed that he would not be able to return to USC in the fall, it was hard for him to identify the root cause.
"This is just the way it is. Money makes the world go round, money makes this school run," Wilson said. "[USC] feeds off all of our money so much, and the fact that I don't have it means I'm not worth it to the school, which is understandable. It's a business, but I just wish it wasn't that way."
Wilson referred to his dilemma as the "upper middle class struggle," where a family is too affluent to qualify for need-based aid but not wealthy enough to pay for college outright. The system of tuition, financial aid, and student loans that surrounds him has failed to keep Wilson at his university.
"I would've been better off if I was actually poor. I could get financial aid … and wouldn't need to take out loans. Or I'd be better off if I were rich. But being in the middle is not having money, needing money, and not getting it."
With student debt in the United States amounting to over $1.3 trillion, Wilson and Moujaes are certainly not alone. The nonprofit American Student Assistance found in 2013 that over 1.1 million Americans each owe more than $100,000 in student loans.
In her report, Akers wrote that roughly half of net tuition costs at colleges nationwide are financed through student loans, up 10 percent from a decade ago. She speculated that this figure would be even higher if the federal loan program were "less restrictive," indicating that there is high demand for money to pay for college regardless of the risks involved.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that as of the 2011-12 academic year, over 67 percent of undergraduate students had borrowed loans to pay for their education.
The impact of all this debt and the high cost of college is more than just financial. Wilson and Moujaes faced being ripped away from all the friendships, career connections, and personal gains made in USC and Los Angeles.
Moujaes was, in the end, able to stay, though he described the thought of having to leave as "debilitating." But Wilson wasn't so lucky. USC claims to meet 100 percent of students' financial need, but that wasn't enough to prevent him from being forced to leave.
"I did work hard enough to come here," Wilson said. "Now I'm going to end up at a shitty school [in New Jersey] that I don't want to be at, and I'm going to have to take out loans to go there. Everything that I've worked hard for and wanted to achieve—I had a taste of it, and now it's going to be all gone again.
"My heart physically hurts. I'd say I looked forward to college more than the usual person. And I came here and it was more perfect than I could've imagined. I became so close with so many people. It hurts so much to know that after this year, that's not going to be the same."