Elizabeth Abreu, a sophomore majoring in international relations, left her family’s home in Kentucky because the conditions in her household made it difficult for her to focus on her studies.
Since a flight to Los Angeles was out of her budget, she abruptly moved to Ohio to live with her godmother, an undocumented house cleaner. Although Abreu helps her with rent, the payments go through another party who is directly named on the lease. This means that — technically speaking — the apartment lease doesn’t belong to Abreu’s godmother.
In order for low-income students who are experiencing “special circumstances” to receive adequate financial aid from the university, they are required to show the Financial Aid Office documented proof of their leases and other expenses.
This puts Abreu in a difficult situation.
“I’ve called up several people, and they kept saying, ‘Oh, explain this!’” Abreu said. “But I’ve done it so many times. And I just got tired of having to explain my story over and over again. It was just a lot of emotional labor.”
Abreu is not the only first-generation, low-income student struggling with financial hardships. Naomi Lestage, a sophomore with an undecided major, created a GoFundMe campaign to pay for her education expenses. Her family of seven currently lives in housing projects in New York, relying on a single income.
“I didn’t even get my financial aid until a couple weeks ago. And it was, it was terrible,” Lestage said.
For students like Abreu and Lestage, navigating the complexities of USC’s Financial Aid Office has proved difficult. That’s why they joined AffordableSC, a group of nearly 400 primarily low-income students working to make USC accessible to every student.
“I just, I don’t know... AffordableSC gives me hope that I can stay a Trojan,” Lestage said.
AffordableSC began with the mission to acquire sustained relief and changes within the financial aid system. They began their social media initiative through Instagram on July 12 in direct response to students noticing reductions in their financial aid packages.
“The pandemic has been difficult and painful, especially for our [first-generation, low income] students and those at high risk or with relatives at high risk,” Zukoski wrote in his letter. “USC is deeply committed to supporting you and your families throughout this challenging period.”
In his letter, Zukoski asserted that two-thirds of all USC undergraduates “receive some form of financial aid” and that the university has not cut financial aid this year. According to the Provost, USC provided $225 million in need grant funding, compared to the $215 million provided in 2019.
The Provost’s Office declined to comment any further, referring Annenberg Media to Zukoski’s Sept. 4 letter.
Students and members of AffordableSC believed Zukoski’s response to be disappointing as well as dismissive to the magnitude of the issue.
To Lestage, Zukoski’s response echoed the response of the USC administration in regard to the Black Lives Matter movement this summer. “They had slightly addressed it, but were scared to actually address ways to progressing and moving forward.”
Like Lestage, Michael Mikail, a senior majoring in political science, was not surprised by Zukoski’s response.
“It’s kind of in line with a lot of the way USC kind of responds to when students have issues, they just point to some of the things that they’re doing and say, ‘Oh, this is enough. You guys don’t need this, we’re doing enough’. And it’s just kind of dismissive,” Mikail said.
In response to the Provost, AffordableSC wrote a five-page letter that was released publicly on Sept. 10 bringing to attention that despite USC’s increase in financial aid, students still experience “significant cuts” to their financial aid packages.
“I was explicitly promised that my financial aid would not go down, and every year it’s gone down, and I have to fight tooth and nail just to get it back to where it was,” Mikail said.
AffordableSC also pointed out that though freshmen with family incomes lower than $80,000 were eligible for free tuition, this stipulation does not apply to any student that enrolled before 2020. Thus, they called for the contribution to carry over to current sophomores, juniors and seniors.
“The tools used by USC used to evaluate ‘financial need’ is much more conservative than the federal [Expected Financial Contribution] calculator,” AffordableSC wrote.
AffordableSC plans to continue moving forward in pursuit of their long-term goals, working to encourage USC to adopt a more flexible approach to financial aid and tuition, as other universities across the country have already begun to implement.
Georgetown University announced on Sept. 4 the creation of a COVID-19 Relief Fund for students needing emergency funding, after the university had previously implemented a 10% tuition decrease for the fall semester. Other schools joining Georgetown in a tuition decrease include Princeton University, Lafayette College and Williams College.
Though USC has offered emergency COVID-19 funding under the CARES Act, AffordableSC hopes USC will follow in these universities' footsteps and lower tuition costs for all students.
Until that happens, AffordableSC will continue to provide a support network for all first-generation, low-income students, even if they’re not part of their organization.
“Everyone has little tips and tricks from their experiences trying to go to financial aid,” Abreu said. “All that information coming together is super valuable and can just save you a lot of headache and just emotional labor trying to do everything on your own.”