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USC hit with class action over education school ranking

The school has acknowledged it gave inaccurate data to U.S. News & World Report about the number of students who had applied to its education school's graduate programs.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Students hit the University of Southern California with a class action Tuesday accusing the private university of fraudulently obtaining a high ranking for its school of education and marketing that rank for years.

The school made headlines this past March after it admitted to a "history of inaccuracies" in the data it had submitted to U.S. News & World Report for the magazine's highly regarded annual college rankings. Specifically, USC's Rossier School of Education had omitted key data about the number of graduate students who had applied to and enrolled in its education program. Along with admitting its errors, USC also decided to withdraw the education school from subsequent rankings.

Kristen Simplicio, the attorney representing students in the class action, said those admissions aren't nearly enough to absolve the school from blame.

"We don’t know the full extent of the fraud," Simplicio said. "Hundreds of students were tricked into enrolling in these programs. They believed it was a high-ranking school. They paid an enormous price for it. Many are in debt. And now there’s a shadow over their degree."

The suit also names as defendant 2U, a privately traded, for-profit company that provides technical support and marketing for colleges' online degree programs. According to the class action filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, 2U typically receives around 60% of the online students' tuition — an arrangement the students say "may be illegal."

"Under most circumstances, federal regulations prohibit institutions from compensating recruiters based on enrollment, in recognition of the fraud that often occurs when financial motivations are introduced," the students say in the complaint. "And fraud is exactly what happened here."

Not only did USC omit key data to obtain the #11 ranking for its education school, it also used that ranking to aggressively market its online education programs to students.

A spokesperson from USC said the school had "not yet received the complaint but will review it when we do." An email to 2U requesting a comment was not answered by press time.

Since 2008, the school and 2U "cherry-picked amongst USC Rossier's admissions selectivity data, capturing only a small percentage of its in-person doctoral students for its submission, a game it would play until it was caught in 2021. The fraud paid off: between 2008 and 2009, USC Rossier vaulted from #38 to #22," the students say in the complaint. The school continued to climb the chart, peaking at #10 in 2018, while the school's online offerings and enrollment expanded.

USC "never submitted any selectivity data from" any of Rossier's online programs to U.S. News & World Report, "as these programs standing alone would have been poorly ranked in comparison to the in-person programs," the students say.

The scheme was also a boon to 2U, whose first client was USC, and its CEO said in 2019 that "the partnership with USC Rossier built the entire company." It went from a startup to a "$2 billion publicly traded education industry juggernaut," the students say in the complaint.

Named plaintiffs include Iola Favell, Sue Zarnowski and Mariah Cummings, all former online education students at USC's Rossier School. They seek class certification, damages including punitive damages and a constructive trust imposed on the defendants to claw back the money plaintiffs say is rightfully theirs.

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