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