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University of Southern California social work students just sued the school, accusing it of ‘intentionally’ misleading people of color about the program and forcing them into ‘massive’ student debt

university of southern californiaThe University of Southern California is pictured in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 22, 2018.

REUTERS/Mike Blake

  • Graduates of USC’s Master of Social Work program sued the school last week.
  • They accused it of misrepresenting the online program and equating it to the on-campus program.
  • They also accused the school of targeting minorities and pushing them into “massive” student debt.

The University of Southern California just got hit with a lawsuit accusing it of misrepresenting its online social work program.

Last week, the Project on Predatory Student Lending filed a lawsuit on behalf of three graduates of USC’s online Master of Social Work program, accusing the school of falsely advertising the online program and claiming it had the same offerings as USC’s in-person program on campus, charging the same $100,000 tuition for both of the programs.

The lawsuit claimed that the online program offered curriculum that was outdated and left those students with far worse career prospects than the students who attended the on-campus program, leaving the online graduates with a “massive” amount of student debt and job placements that were insufficient to pay off that debt. Additionally, the program was run by an online program management company called 2U, and the plaintiffs said that USC did not disclose that the employees contacting them were actually 2U employees — and not USC’s. That arrangement turned the program into an “enormous degree mill,” the lawsuit said.

“As a direct result of USC’s misrepresentations, false advertising, and unfair business practices, Plaintiffs and their fellow online students did not get what they applied, enrolled, and paid for,” the lawsuit said. “If not for USC’s false advertising and deceptive and discriminatory practices, Plaintiffs would never have paid the inflated tuition for USC’s completely different and decidedly unequal online MSW program.”

USC and 2U did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment. USC told the LA Times that it would “review the lawsuit in detail when we receive it,” adding that “the school has one MSW program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and delivered through on-campus and online options.”

The lawsuit also accused USC of “reverse redlining,” in which it “intentionally targeted toward people of color and veterans whom USC thought were better marks for ‘conversion’— that is, more likely to enroll once they were in touch with a recruiter—even if what they were getting was worth less than what they would have to pay for it by taking on massive debt.”

Stephanie Luna, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, graduated the program in 2021 and she paid over $110,000 for the online social work program, according to the lawsuit. While Luna expressed concerns with her ability to afford the program, a 2U representative told her that federal student loans would “cover everything.” Luna later noticed discrepancies with the online curriculum and on-campus curriculum, and after reading a 2021 Wall Street Journal article that reported on the school targeting minorities, she believed she was targeted for her race and gender. She now has $100,000 in student debt and said she would not have enrolled in the program had she known the online program was not the same as on-campus.

“When I found out the truth about this program and just how much USC lied to us, I was livid. The fact that the MSW program was used as a moneymaker and to deceive people like myself and the communities that I come from is not okay, and something needs to be done because people continue to be recruited,” Luna said in a statement. “We were taught that as social workers, our job is to advocate for people who don’t have voices and who are from underserved communities, so to have USC preach these values while lying to our faces and taking advantage of us is so hypocritical.” 

The lawsuit is seeking an order to prevent USC from misrepresenting the online social work program to future students, along with tuition reimbursement to compensate online students for differences in the online and on-campus degrees.

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