What life is like as a stu­dent at USC depends on the size of your bank ac­count

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - BY Jen­nifer Me­d­ina

LOS AN­GE­LES – Spring breaks in Bali, re­sort-style apart­ment build­ings with rooftop pools and tan­ning beds, and reg­u­lar din­ners out at Nobu, where a tab for four room­mates could eas­ily stretch into four dig­its. This is life as a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of South­ern California.

This is also life as a USC stu­dent: work­ing an overnight shift to earn money for books, go­ing hun­gry when the cam­pus meal plan runs out, and seething as friends pre­sume that a $20 glass of wine is af­ford­able.

The di­vide be­tween rich and poor stu­dents could hardly be more vivid than it is at USC, where the chil­dren of celebri­ties and real es­tate moguls study along­side the chil­dren of nan­nies and dish­wash­ers.

Now, the col­lege ad­mis­sions bribery scheme, which has en­snared dozens of wealthy par­ents ac­cused of brib­ing their chil­dren’s way into USC, has brought re­newed at­ten­tion to class di­vides on cam­pus – and how dif­fer­ent the stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence can be de­pend­ing on the size of the bank ac­count.

“USC tries to paint the cam­pus as this beau­ti­ful place to en­joy and rel­ish in abun­dance,” said Oliver Bent­ley, a sopho­more who is among the first in his fam­ily to at­tend col­lege. “There’s this idea that once you en­ter USC, you’re all on the same play­ing field. That in and of it­self is a lie. I have met these rich kids who have so much that I can’t com­pre­hend, do­ing things that I can’t fathom.”

In­ter­views with stu­dents on cam­pus from across the eco­nomic spec­trum show how dif­fi­cult it is to nav­i­gate a univer­sity that tries to be a home for all. Af­ter decades of at­tract­ing some of Los An­ge­les’ wealthiest fam­i­lies, USC has aggressively re­cruited and en­rolled stu­dents who could never af­ford the roughly $57,000 an­nual tu­ition.

But the re­al­ity for many is a mi­cro­cosm of the eco­nomic dis­par­i­ties of the city the cam­pus calls home – and as in the rest of Los An­ge­les, the vast majority feel ill-equipped to bridge the di­vide.

The univer­sity has made at­tract­ing stu­dents from all back­grounds a priority, and by al­most any mea­sure, its re­cruit­ment ef­forts have been a re­sound­ing success. The aca­demic cre­den­tials of in­com­ing fresh­men have steadily risen, and ap­pli­ca­tions to the univer­sity are at an all-time high. As USC has fought to shed its rep­u­ta­tion as a play­ground for the spoiled elite, of­fi­cials have boasted about its racial and so­cio-eco­nomic di­ver­sity: More than a quar­ter of all stu­dents are from un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nor­ity groups, 14 per­cent of fresh­men are the first in their fam­i­lies to at­tend col­lege, and two out of three stu­dents re­ceive financial as­sis­tance. The col­lege has one of the largest financial aid pools in the coun­try – more than $350 mil­lion, an in­crease of nearly 80 per­cent over the last decade.

And yet, as the bribery cases have made clear, the cam­pus re­mains a place of per­va­sive wealth, where celebrity, money and sta­tus are still a part of daily life.

On the sun-streaked cam­pus, stu­dents said con­ver­sa­tions fo­cused on a mix of envy and judg­ment for those with more. Stu­dents of all back­grounds said they of­ten silently wor­ried that they were be­ing judged by their peers – ei­ther for hav­ing too much or not enough.

Bent­ley was raised by a sin­gle mother in Menifee, a small work­ing-class city about 80 miles east of Los An­ge­les. When he ar­rived on cam­pus, he ex­pected to feel com­fort­able quickly, but in­stead said he was “com­pletely alien­ated” be­cause he did not have enough money. Most of his friends now, he said, come from sim­i­lar back­grounds “lower mid­dle class or just poor.”

Heran Mamo, who grew up in Port­land as the only child of an epi­demi­ol­o­gist and a sports writer who both em­i­grated from Ethiopia, con­sid­ers her­self mid­dle class. In the last four years, she has sel­dom hes­i­tated to go out for ex­pen­sive meals and drinks.

“There’s not a huge cul­ture of say­ing no to spend­ing,” said Mamo, who will grad­u­ate this spring. “You think ‘I de­serve to treat my­self,’ and you start fear­ing say­ing you can’t do some­thing be­cause you can’t af­ford it.”

When she has turned down in­vi­ta­tions be­cause of money – by­pass­ing a night out or a spring break in Hawaii – her friends have been un­der­stand­ing, Mamo said. Money is rarely spo­ken about ex­plic­itly, she added, and “peo­ple don’t re­ally acknowledge when they’re re­ally wealthy, you usu­ally only find out af­ter a while.”

Grow­ing up in Co­has­set, Mass., a wealthy coastal com­mu­nity south of Bos­ton, Dan Toomey knew he was well off. “You would be naive to think you weren’t born into priv­i­lege there,” he said.

And he knew USC had a rep­u­ta­tion as a haven for spoiled chil­dren, but he has seen lit­tle ev­i­dence of that.

“Every­one is al­ways pur­su­ing dif­fer­ent things, do­ing all kinds of pro­jects,” he said.

“We’ve all been told over and over again: You’re go­ing to be poor, you’re never go­ing to make as much as your par­ents, you’re go­ing to need to move back in with them. So we’re much more fi­nan­cially sen­si­tive than per­haps other gen­er­a­tions.”

New York Times

Heran Mamo, who grew up in Port­land, con­sid­ers her­self mid­dle class. She says money is rarely spo­ken about ex­plic­itly at USC, and “peo­ple don’t re­ally acknowledge when they’re re­ally wealthy, you usu­ally only find out af­ter a while.”

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