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USC graduates sue over online social work program, alleging false advertising

USC graduates sue over online social work program, alleging false advertising

Higher Ed Dive

Laura Spitalniak
May 4, 2023
Dive Brief:
  • Graduates of the University of Southern California’s online master’s degree in social work filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday, alleging the institution misrepresented the program as on par with an on-campus version.
  • They allege the university presented the online program as “exactly the same” as the in-person program, even though the online version was outsourced entirely to 2U, a for-profit education technology company. Both programs charged the same tuition and fees — in excess of $100,000.
  • The lawsuit, filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, accuses USC of misrepresentation, false advertising, and other illegal recruitment practices. The plaintiffs are seeking to be refunded for the amount they say USC overcharged them and to stop the university repeating its alleged bad behaviors, according to one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs.
Dive Insight:
Since USC partnered with 2U, enrollment in the university’s social work master’s program grew from 300 students to over 3,000 students, according to the lawsuit, which has yet to be certified as a class action. Online growth almost entirely drove the increase.
But the program has been under intense scrutiny since a 2021 investigation by The Wall Street Journal found it left graduates with one of the worst debt-to-earnings ratios in the country.
The online master’s degree’s instructors, content, curriculum, advising and clinical placements were all inferior to the offerings at the in-person program and were managed by 2U, not the University of Southern California, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also alleges USC, through 2U employees, targeted students of color and veterans with aggressive and predatory tactics to convince them to enroll in the online program. Recruiters used emails when communicating with prospective students, despite working for 2U, not the university, the lawsuit said.
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