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Inside the Online Master’s Degree Scam


USC is basically using shady sales tactics to convince people to pay far more for a Social Work master’s degree than its fair market value:

Over the past decade, the University of Southern California has used a for-profit company to help enroll thousands of students in its online social-work master’s program.

The nonprofit school used its status-symbol image to attract students across the country, including low-income minority students it targeted for recruitment, often with aggressive tactics. Most students piled on debt to afford the tuition, which last year reached $115,000 for the two-year degree. The majority never set foot on the posh Los Angeles campus but paid the same rate for online classes as in-person students.

Recent USC social-work graduates who took out federal loans borrowed a median $112,000. Half of them were earning $52,000 or less annually two years later, a Wall Street Journal analysis of newly released U.S. Education Department data found. Compared with other master’s-degree programs at top-tier U.S. universities, the USC social-work degree had one of the worst combinations of debt and earnings.

A master’s in social work is a requirement for many counseling jobs. There are less expensive ways to get one. More than a dozen public universities in California produced graduates with less debt and higher incomes, the data covering 2015 and 2016 graduates show. At California State University, Long Beach in Los Angeles County, graduates borrowed less than a third of USC students and earned a median $59,000 two years later—about 14% more than USC students.

“I realize now I could have gotten the same job with a much cheaper degree from a different school,” said Susan Fowler, a 37-year-old mother of two, who enrolled in USC’s master’s-degree program because of its prestigious name and the flexibility of its online classes.

Ms. Fowler, a 2018 graduate, enjoyed the program but owes $307,000 in total student-loan debt, including about $200,000 from the master’s degree. She said she earns $48,000 as a community mental-health therapist in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

To attract students, USC employs a style of recruiting once rare at highly regarded universities, according to dozens of interviews with current and former students and employees. Recruiters for 2U Inc., a for-profit company that works with USC and others to develop online degrees, repeatedly call and email prospective applicants. Counselors sometimes recruited people with low grades to meet enrollment targets.

The school formulated marketing campaigns to woo applicants, using demographic profiles of the kinds of students they would recruit, internal documents used by the marketing department and reviewed by the Journal show. The profiles include cartoon characters depicting potential recruits; in one depiction, a Black woman dubbed Needy Nelly “needs hand-holding” and “calls and emails everyone” because she has trouble with her application.

Always Be Closing!

See Anne Helen Petersen for more on the general phenomenon.

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