- 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 "substantial aspects" of the online version were outsourced 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.
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 usc.edu emails when communicating with prospective students, despite working for 2U, not the university, the lawsuit said.
"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," Stephanie Luna, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a Mexican-American college student, said in a statement.
The Project on Predatory Student Lending, which specializes in claims involving former students of for-profit colleges, is representing the plaintiffs. Its president and director, Eileen Connor, described the university's online social work program as "an expensive diploma mill."
“USC used its brand to deliberately deceive unsuspecting students to create a ‘cash cow’ through its inferior online MSW program at students’ expense,” Connor said in a statement.
USC said Thursday it has not been served with the lawsuit yet and will review it in detail at that time.
"While 2U is not named as a defendant in this suit, we have reviewed the plaintiffs’ specific accusations against us, and our call recordings and student feedback forms clearly show that the allegations are without merit,” 2U said in a statement. “We are appalled by the offensive marketing personas described in the complaint, which 2U did not develop and has never used in any of our marketing or recruiting efforts."
This isn't the only class-action lawsuit USC is currently facing.
In December, a separate group of former students sued the institution and 2U, alleging they artificially inflated the rankings of USC's online education programs to boost enrollment.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated how much of the program the lawsuit alleges was outsourced to 2U. The article has been updated to reflect that the lawsuit alleges USC outsourced "substantial aspects" of the program. It has also been updated to include a comment from 2U.