The University of Southern California’s school of education was sued by alumni who claim that officers violated state law by falsely promoting the graduate program’s high online degree ranking, which was grounded in part on fraudulent data submitted to the U.S. News & World Report’s academy rating.
The class-action action, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that USC and 2U Inc., a tech company hired by the university to enroll students and give specialized support for its online programs, “aggressively advertised” the Rossier School of Education’s “fraudulent” rankings to bolster registration in online courses.
“People certainly paid a premium given how expensive the school is,” said Kristen Simplicio, an attorney representing the alumni. “That ranking was one of the reasons that school was able to charge as much as it did.”
A representative for USC said the university hadn't entered the lawsuit yet. 2U didn't answer a request for a comment right away.
The Rossier School came under inspection last March, when USC directors pulled it from U.S. News & World Report’s coming periodic ranking of best graduate schools because campus workers had revealed inaccuracies in data reports.
According to the complaint, defendants did not disclose to those interested in the online programs that the ranking reckoned on data covering only a particular portion of USC Rossier’s in-person degree programs. Defendants used the ranking to mislead hundreds of scholars, numerous of whom were or wanted to be teachers, into enrolling at the academy, as well as to pay its high price label.
The complaint included screenshots of announcements on the Rossier School of Education website touting its U.S. News ranking and the school’s Twitter profile that described its master’s program in tutoring as “top- ranked.”
Attorneys for the scholars are asking the court to order USC and 2U to return tuition and associated costs to the further than 1,000 scholars who have enrolled in the Rossier School’s online EdD, a doctorate program, and master’s programs since the alleged fraud began and to give up any gains it made through the courses.
An internal USC investigation revealed that two deans in the Rossier School guided officers to omit crucial data submitted to the U.S. News & World Report list, moves that led to the academy’s ascent in the rankings
The conduct created a perception that Rossier’s “doctoral programs were much smaller and more selective than they actually were,” per a report by Jones Day, an independent law establishment hired by USC.
The report detailed a practice that had unfolded since at least 2013 under Dean Karen Symms Gallagher, who led the Rossier School from 2000 to 2020, and continued under her successor, Dean Pedro Noguera. Both approved the misreporting, although Noguera in late 2021 advised the academy’s provost to a possible problem.
The neglected data substantially involved scholar selectivity, which accounts for 18% of the school’s score by U.S. News.
Staff were told to omit data from the EdD program and to include only data from the PhD program, ignoring that rating requirements included both.
The EdD program, which is generally aimed at training education professionals like principals and superintendents, accepts far more scholars than the PhD program, which is more discerning and meant for developing academics and professors.
Noguera subsequently said he inaptly believed that the university’s Office of Institutional Research was vindicating the data submitted by the school and admitted responsibility for continuing the practice of incorrectly reporting data during his first year as dean.
According to the law action, USC’s position in the U.S. News rankings of education institutions improved over time because of the deficient data, rising from No. 38 in 2008 to No. 10 in 2018. Most recently, it ranked No.11 among education institutions. The website now marks Rossier as “unranked.”
Iola Favell, one of the scholars suing the university, got a master’s degree in tutoring from Rossier in May 2021. She said she was drawn to the institution because of its high ranking.
Favell said she began to feel sorry for the decision during the first semester, when she had to learn the majority of the course material on her own through self-study projects. After being employed as an elementary school tutor in Los Angeles, it became clear that the program had failed to prepare her for the challenges of tutoring, including the insight into special education, she said.
Favell said she reckoned nearly entirely on the U.S. News ranking when opting for the USC’s program and would not have enrolled there if she knew the school’s ranking was grounded on defective data.
“It was surely not worth what I paid for it, ” said Favell, who loaned more than $100,000 to pay for the course and cover other costs. “I just wish I had known this information before I chose a program.”
Education for USC’s master’s program in tutoring costs nearly $60,000, and its master’s course in school counseling costs nearly $105,000, according to the institution’s website. The online EdD program costs between $91,890 and $128,220.
Eric Rothschild, an attorney with National Student Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit legal advocacy association that's representing the scholars, said the Rossier programs didn't correspond to the prestige the rankings promised.
“They had every reason to believe that they were paying for something special,” he said. “ And that’s not in fact the education they received.”