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USC will offer free tuition to families making under $80,000

The University of Southern California (USC) announced major changes to its financial aid program on Thursday. Starting with the incoming class of fall 2020, families with an annual income of $80,000 or less can attend the school tuition-free.

The effort to expand access for an increased number of middle and low-income students also includes the removal of a policy that penalized homeowners. The university's president, Carol Folt, said in a statement that owning a home will no longer be counted in financial aid calculations. The new policies will be "phased in with each new entering class."

"Excited to announce two new initiatives that increase financial aid for our talented and hardworking students," Folt wrote on Twitter.

Folt hopes the new policies will benefit families who are struggling to pay the rising costs of a college education. "We're opening the door wider to make a USC education possible for talented students from all walks of life," she said. "This significant step we are taking today is by no means the end of our affordability journey."

The university website says it will increase undergraduate aid by more than $30 million annually, benefitting more than 4,000 students every year once fully implemented.

Folt, who has made access and affordability at USC a key priority, became president of the private institution in July 2019, amid the college admissions bribery scandal. The sweeping scheme involved the alleged rigging of test scores and bribing of coaches to get students into elite schools across the country.

The university anticipates approximately one-third of the fall 2020 and spring 2021 entering class will benefit from the increase in financial assistance. Eligible students will receive up to $45,000 more aid during their undergraduate studies.

The 2019-2020 estimated cost of attending USC stands at almost $77,500, with tuition alone averaging $57,000 for the academic year.  In comparison, the average cost of attending one of the public University of California schools is significantly lower — just $36,000 for a California resident living on campus.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Folt said they decided on the tuition-free threshold of $80,000 to match the policy of UC campuses and "to align with California's median household income, which was $71,000 in 2017." 

USC's new efforts also align with the policy of another elite private college in the state. Back in 2018, Stanford made the decision to remove home equity as a factor in calculating financial aid.

Outstanding federal student debt now totals $1.5 trillion, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. College affordability and student-debt has become a top-tier issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. 

Mayor Pete Buttigieg told "CBS This Morning" that he is proposing tuition-free public college "for the first 80%" of Americans. "If you're between that 80% and 90%, [with income] over $100,000, it will be a sliding scale," he said.

Senator Bernie Sanders has said he wants to erase the nation's outstanding student debt by taxing Wall Street transactions. His plan would also provide $48 billion in state funding to provide free tuition at state colleges and universities.

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