Amid COVID-19 pandemic, USC raises tuition by 3.5% to $59,260 for 2020-21 school year

The tuition increase will not be affected by whether classes will be held in-person or online in the fall semester. Starting July 1, students will not be able to pay their tuition via credit or debit cards.

Undergraduate tuition at USC for the 2020-21 academic year will be $59,260, a 3.5% ($2,004) increase from the previous year, Annenberg Media learned and confirmed with the university.

The flat tuition for 2020 fall and 2021 spring will each be $29,630, according to the information on the USC Schedule of Classes website. Comparing to the 2019-2020 school year, the cost of each unit will also increase from $1,928 to $1,995. Students pay by each unit if they are taking summer classes or taking less than 12 units in a spring or fall semester. If students are taking more than 18 units per semester, they also need to pay the additional units.



In the past years, USC usually announced its tuition hike in March. There was no news this March regarding tuition change for the 2020-21 academic year. When Annenberg Media first asked the university in late April about the tuition plan, the university said no decision was made at that point. Annenberg Media reached out to the university in early May, asking about the Fall 2020 tuition information on the USC Schedule of Classes website.

A university spokesperson told Annenberg Media Wednesday, May 13, that the amount of tuition increase was initially planned and approved before the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic made the USC Board of Trustees and university administration revisit the tuition hike plan. After reviewing financial ramifications from the coronavirus impact, the university decided to stick with the original tuition increase plan, according to the spokesperson.

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USC Board of Trustees approved a 3.5% increase in undergraduate tuition, which will be implemented for the 2020-2021 academic year. It mirrors last year’s change in tuition, which was among the smallest percentage increases in 50 years,” a university statement provided by the spokesperson wrote. “This increase, which is in line with our peer universities, will help fund the high-quality education, broad range of outstanding academic programs and important research activities that are the hallmarks of USC.”

USC has not announced whether the incoming fall semester will be online or in-person. The university will be fully operational, offering its full roster of courses and degrees, in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, according to an email that university officials sent to the USC community on May 7. USC planned to announce in June more details of its plan for the Fall 2020 semester, as part of a campus-wide effort called Project Restart to gradually reopen on-campus activities, the email added.

“We are exploring a range of scenarios, with significant public health provisions, that will allow us to offer our courses in person, while also ensuring most, if not all classes will be available, in parallel, online,” the email said, addressing the 2020-21 academic year.

The university spokesperson told Annenberg Media Wednesday that the administration hasn’t made decisions on the fall semester yet, but having courses in-person or online would not affect or change the fall semester’s tuition, including this tuition increase.

“The reality is that the costs of running a university continue to rise each year, and tuition only covers a portion of the cost of a student education. In the 2020-2021 academic year, in particular, we expect to incur significant new expenditures to ensure the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff, as well as an increase in our investment in technology and new programs,” the university statement that Annenberg Media received Wednesday added. "At the same time, we anticipate an even greater need for financial assistance in the coming year, and we remain firm in our commitment to meet the financial needs of our students and their families.”

According to the 2019 USC Financial Statements, net student tuition and fees, around $1.57 billion, comprised 30% of the university’s operating revenues.

USC declined to make Board of Trustees Chair Rick Caruso, President Carol Folt, Chief Financial Officer James Staten or any university official available for an interview.

USC is facing a $300-500 million operating shortfall through June 2021, associated with costs and lost revenues, grants, and gifts due to the pandemic, Folt said in her online State of the University address on April 29. USC has already taken a series of actions to cut spending.

While USC has a $5.7 billion endowment, Folt said in her speech that the endowment comes from gifts from people with legal agreements that specify for particular purposes of using the money.

“It’s also a rainy day fund for those purposes. It helps you to keep things going. But our entire endowment doesn’t fund a single year of USC’s budget,” she said during a Q&A session after the speech.

Folt added that the endowment is not designed to be used for a pandemic, so USC has to find its own ways to combat the financial difficulties that the university and its students are facing.

According to the 2019 USC Financial Statements, allocation of endowment spending in the 2019 fiscal year comprised about 4.7% of the university’s operating revenues.

However, while USC plans to increase its tuition, some colleges have announced freezing tuition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The College of William & Mary said in late April that it would reverse a previously adopted 3% fall 2020 tuition increase. The University of Illinois System announced in late April all its schools would waive its previously approved tuition increases.

Beginning July 1, 2020, USC students will no longer be able to pay their tuition, fees and other charges associated with their student accounts with credit cards or debit cards, USC announced recently.

“Over time, it has become more difficult for colleges and universities to absorb rising credit card fees,” the Student Financial Services website stated. “Public universities can require card holders to pay convenience fees, but in California, private institutions are prohibited by state law from charging those fees when credit cards/debit cards are used to make tuition payments.”

Annenberg Media reported in late 2018 that USC was considering removing credit cards from its tuition payment choices. Donald Matthewson, who was USC Treasurer at the time and left the university in 2019 January, told Annenberg Media that USC was paying $11 million third-party convenience fee associated with credit card payments from students every year.

Many students and parents used the credit card payment option for cash rewards, and it’s a faster and more convenient option than international wire payments for international students. After Annenberg Media sent feedback from parents and students to then-USC Treasurer Donald Matthewson, who left the university in 2019 January, USC announced on Jan. 5, 2019 that beginning July 1, 2019, credit card payments for charges associated with student accounts would be limited to $10,000 per academic term.

After July 1, 2020, students can pay their tuition via electronic checks, mailing checks and wire transfer.

USC has announced that considering the Spring 2020 semester affected by COVID-19, it would provide a pro-rated refund of room and meal plan payments, but the university would not provide any tuition refunds. Like some other universities, USC is currently facing class-action lawsuits that the university’s refusal to refund any Spring 2020 tuition is unlawful because of “the dramatically lower quality and less valuable education and services now being provided,” according to the complaint.

Regarding to the lawsuit, a spokesperson sent Annenberg Media following university statement on May 5.

“USC is aware of the lawsuit. Led by its committed and dedicated faculty, USC pivoted immediately to deliver quality instruction in an online format when the entire world was impacted by COVID-19. Faculty and staff have worked tirelessly to connect with students to ensure that academic work continues on track and that progress toward the completion of a USC degree continues. This is an unprecedented time for all educators but with hard work and rigor, we have maintained our academic standards during the transition to online learning required by the Safer at Home orders. Our priority is the education and well-being our students. We will continue to follow the guidance of public health officials and make decisions that are in the best interests of the entire USC community."

USC is receiving $19.2 million in grants from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, which is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. USC said April 22 that the university would keep the fund and use 100% of the fund toward providing financial assistance to eligible affected students. International students and undocumented students are not eligible.

On Feb. 20, USC announced that starting in fall 2020 and spring 2021, most entering first-year undergraduate students whose families earn less than $80,000 annually would attend USC tuition-free. This affordability initiative led by Folt would also take owning a home out of the calculation used to determine these students’ financial needs. International students, transfer students and continuing students are not eligible for this initiative.

Annenberg Media confirmed with the university Wednesday that the affordability initiative will continue as it has planned and not be affected by the pandemic.