NOTE: This story was reported by the Beacon Project, a student journalism initiative supported by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to report on USC. It is independent of the university’s administration.
Forty years ago, Guadalupe “Lupe” Vivar left Mexico and came to the U.S. to start a new life. In 1995, she landed a job at a restaurant, where she still works and where most of her salary, she says, comes from tips. Yet all three of her children have graduated from USC, where tuition alone exceeds $50,000 per year.
Tuition for Vivar’s kids, however, was far less. Zero, in fact. That’s because the restaurant where she works is part of USC and, as a university employee, she paid no tuition.
The college admissions scandal, in which wealthy parents bribed and defrauded their way into top-tier universities, sparked a larger discussion about the multitude of perfectly legal ways in which wealthy families get a leg up when applying to colleges. The crazy rich can donate buildings. The merely well-to-do can pay for tutoring and classes to help their kids ace college entrance exams. And children of alumni — known as “legacies” in admission lingo — get preferential treatment when applying to their parents’ colleges.
All of those factors have helped make the student population at USC and other elite universities far wealthier than the U.S. population at large. A lesser-known fact is that at many universities, children of employees — from provost to payroll clerk — also get admitted at higher rates than ordinary applicants. And they often get free tuition, liberating them from crushing debt and, in some cases, making it feasible for them to attend at all. “I told my children that thank god we had this benefit,” Vivar said.
Perks for lower-income families don’t come close to equalizing the advantages wealthy families enjoy. But at USC, Vivar’s story is one small part of how the university has slowly expanded its diversity. Fourteen years ago, 58% of freshmen were white, and 17% were the first in their families to attend college. For the 2018-2019 crop of first-year students, whites make up 36%, while the proportion of “first generation” students has remained stable.
While children of employees get a financial break, they must go through the same admission process as everyone else, said Timothy Brunold, Dean of Admission. USC admits just 11% of undergraduate applicants each year. He said being the child of a USC employee doesn’t determine admission but is a “positive” factor.
“While it’s good to know that someone is the child of someone who works here,” said Vice President of Admission and Planning Katahrine Harrington, “that is only a part of that whole picture.” Applicants must state if they are part of a special group, such as children of faculty or alumni, said Harrington, who added that about 2% of all applications USC receives are from such special groups. For the 3,200 freshmen in the incoming class, the proportion of children of employees is expected to be 4%, the same percentage as recruited student athletes, and legacies are 17%, according to Brunold.
When her children were between the ages of 3 and 9, Vivar started to work at the University Club as a part-time food services employee, serving professors and their guests for breakfast, lunch and happy hour. She’s worked there ever since, and now holds a full-time role.
“My children grew up around USC, they loved it,” Vivar said.“My children came here every Saturday, so I asked how my children could come here to study.”
Vivar said her children “worked hard” to be admitted, as did she and her husband of 35 years, a construction worker from Guatemala, who got involved early in their children’s schooling.
“You must be behind them because many parents don’t know how to help their children because they don’t ask. So, their children go to the easiest classes, which helped them to graduate but not to go to university. We, as parents, have the responsibility of being involved,” Vivar said in an interview, conducted in Spanish.
The USC admissions office offers seminars for employees to help them detail the selection process, and Vivar said her colleagues helped her understand the academic and standardized testing requirements. She met with her children’s academic advisers and got them involved in after-school programs — some of them at USC. They also attended USC programs to prepare them to take the SAT exams.
After applying several times, her children were finally admitted by the 32nd Street/USC Visual and Performing Arts Magnet School, close to campus. The school offers classes focused on science, technology, engineering and math, from 6th through 12th grade. Seventy-eight percent of its students are Latino, 12% are African American, and 6% are white. The school, one of 15 elementary, middle and high school programs, is identified on USC’s website as within the “USC Family of Schools.”
All three of her children were at or near the top of their classes, Vivar said, and they worked hard on their college entrance essays.
At USC, Vivar’s middle child studied Political Science, while her youngest received an engineering degree. Vivar declined to provide their names or contact information, saying they did not want to speak with a journalist.
She did talk about Jocelyn, the oldest, who showed a keen interest in health care from a young age. She graduated from Keck School of Medicine with a BA in Health Promotion and a master’s degree in Public Health in 2008.
The first admission letter Jocelyn received was from UCLA, Vivar recalled, and it included a full scholarship. But even though that was a very good university, “Her heart was here in USC because she grew up here,” Vivar said.
Harrington often shares Vivar’s story when talking about the diversity of USC’s student body. They met at the University Club, where Harrington said Lupe served her lunch several times and told her “proudly” about her children.
“We’ve worked very hard opening the doors at USC to many different kinds of people,” Harrington said. Admissions officers actively seek students from 2,000 high schools in the U.S. and in 20 foreign countries, she said, including China, India, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Brazil. “Going to college in a racial, ethnically, socioeconomically, life experience, geographically diverse environment is an important part of education,” she said.
USC, the largest private employer in Los Angeles, offers 100% tuition assistance — a full free ride — to children of employees who have worked for the university for at least two years. The benefit lasts as long as the child is actually enrolled at USC. “Tuition help for your family,” reads a website sent to new university hires advertising the program. A video featuring Vivar is among the materials for employees on that resource page.
Today, Vivar is happy to see her children working as professionals, financially independent. She said they “know they have had the privilege of studying in a university that [is as] good and prestigious as USC.”