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Heard the Latest One About USC and UCLA?

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Consider this time-honored taunt:

The USC marching band strikes up “Tribute to Troy,” arousing fans to keep tempo by flashing their fingers in a victory sign. In the opposing bleachers, UCLA students begin to mock them by waving luxury-car keys. Or dollar bills. Or credit cards.

“They’re trying to say we’re all spoiled rich kids,” said Summer Neilson, one of USC’s blond, blue-eyed song leaders. “You know, USC, University of Spoiled Children. And they’re all poor Bruins. It’s so lame.”

Lame? Perhaps.

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But stereotypes matter. Enough that image-conscious USC officials have gone so far as to take out ads claiming that it’s UCLA where the rich kids are: “The average family income of students at California’s flagship public universities is higher than the average family income of USC students.”

The figures they rely on have been disavowed--for that purpose--by the agency that generated them, and a more reliable study shows that USC still has the edge in wealth. What’s interesting, though, is how such assertions underscore the importance of image in college marketing these days.

USC has mounted an ambitious and largely successful effort over the last decade to bring in students with better academic records and more diverse backgrounds. It has had less success in shaking USC’s frat-boy, party-school reputation.

So even an innocent question to a USC administrator can ignite an outburst of institutional touchiness: “I am not going to contribute to anything that reinforces the stereotype of the rich, spoiled Trojans.”

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The reality beyond the perceptions may horrify die-hard fans from both schools: Trojans and Bruins are starting to look, gulp, more and more alike.

What do you get when you drive your BMW very, very slowly past USC?

A diploma.

How do you get a UCLA grad off your front porch?

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Pay him for the pizza and send him on his way.

Most jokes hurled at the cross-town rivals celebrate the perceived differences in wealth or class.

For every UCLA student who jangles keys at the “University of Spoiled Children,” there’s a USC counterpart who wears a “My maid went to UCLA” T-shirt or who lobs the one-liner: “I used to go to UCLA, then my dad got a job.”

In reality, though, the incomes of USC and UCLA students’ families have become strikingly similar, according to a national survey of freshmen that canvasses both campuses. The median family income of USC freshmen this year was $72,476. For UCLA freshmen it was $68,230.

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But the percentage of USC students who are truly rich (the over $200,000 crowd) is more than twice as high as its rival’s. UCLA’s biggest concentration of students comes from families earning $100,000 to $150,000.

A Name-Brand Education for Less

The average family income of UCLA students has climbed over the years as the upper middle class and even the economic elite have discovered that their sons and daughters can get a name-brand education there for a fraction of the cost of private college. At the same time, USC has succeeded in diversifying its student body, both ethnically and economically.

The shift is not lost on Helen Chang, a UCLA senior majoring in international economics. “UCLA students walk around with cell phones and drive BMWs, just like USC students,” she said.

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Back in the mid-1980s, when it could still use race- or gender-based affirmative action in its admissions and there was not such ferocious competition for each seat, UCLA had more low-income students, said Assistant Vice Chancellor Thomas Lifka.

The campus still works hard to keep its doors open to the poor, giving added consideration to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But those students swim against the tide in merit-based admissions practices of the post-affirmative action era.

Affluent students often show up with better credentials than the poor. They attend better high schools, take more Advanced Placement and honors courses, and get higher scores on the SAT and other standardized tests. And with UCLA turning away 73% of its applicants for next fall, less-prepared lower-income students increasingly find it hard to compete.

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Why do the wealthy pick UCLA?

Olivia San Wong may give some insight. She initially wanted to go back East to an Ivy League school or other prestigious private university. Then she recoiled from the sticker shock of paying $30,000 or so a year.

Sure, her parents could swing it. Her dad’s a doctor, after all. Her mother is a nurse.

“I didn’t want them to pay that much money,” said Wong, now a junior at UCLA majoring in applied math. “It’s my education, and I wanted to pay for part.” She covers her biggest expenses--room and board--by working as a resident assistant in a high-rise dorm.

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UCLA is not the only public university attracting wealthy students. Indeed, although it seems counterintuitive, students at UC campuses around the state have a higher average family income than those attending private colleges, even though private tuition is often five times as much.

How can that be?

Credit the $500 million in financial aid doled out every year by private colleges and universities, says Jonathan Brown, who heads an association of the 71 private campuses in California.

“A lower-income student can actually go to a private college cheaper than a public institution because of the availability of student aid,” Brown said. “But an upper-income student usually pays either full price or close to it.”

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Another part of the equation is the rising prestige of the “public ivies,” such as the universities of California, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Studies in Minnesota, Florida and Oregon show that students at their prestigious four-year public universities have higher average family incomes than their counterparts at private institutions.

Public universities have been gentrifying, says economist Morton Owen Schapiro, who happens to be a vice president at USC. Private colleges and universities still attract about half of the students who come from families earning $200,000 a year or more. But the proportion of these rich kids going to public universities has climbed steadily, from 33% in 1981 to 39% in 1998, he said.

“If you are lucky enough to be in a state where you have a world-famous public ivy, you are going to give it a very close look,” he said.

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UCLA, offering a rich education at a bargain $3,863 a year, gets more close looks than any other campus in America--a record 35,621 applicants for next fall’s freshman class.

The $4,000 income difference between the average USC and UCLA freshman’s family pales compared to the income disparity involving California’s other major public-private university rivalry--Stanford vs. Berkeley.

At Stanford, 21% of freshmen reported that their parents made more than $200,000. Such figures for Berkeley were not available. But overall family income for Stanford students averages more than $100,000, while at Berkeley the figure is about $64,000.

Seeking a More Diverse Enrollment

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It’s not just the rich flocking to UCLA who are blurring the distinctions between Bruins and Trojans.

USC has engaged in a systematic, decadelong campaign to bring in a more diverse and academically prepared crop of students.

The admissions and financial aid office now hands out about $200 million each year to attract top students from all income and ethnic backgrounds. About 60% of all USC students get some financial aid to help them manage the $31,000 yearly cost (including room and board) of attendance.

The institution aggressively recruits African American and Latino students, as part of its campaign to improve neighboring schools and foster good relations with the surrounding minority communities.

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The numbers tell the story.

USC has proportionally as many black and Latino students as UCLA. When it comes to racial diversity, the principal difference is that students of Asian heritage make up the largest ethnic group at UCLA, while whites continue to dominate at USC.

The academic caliber of USC students has changed dramatically too.

In 1988, USC had 9,149 applicants for 3,118 freshman seats. It accepted 78.3% of all who applied. The resulting freshmen class had a high school grade point average of 3.32 and SAT scores of 1,056.

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In 1998, USC had 21,400 applicants for a freshman class of 2,982. It accepted 44.9% of the applicants. High school GPAs soared to 3.7 and average SATs to 1,243 for that entering class, narrowing the gap with UCLA student credentials.

The competition for next fall’s freshman class was even more fierce as USC accepted only 33% of applicants, making it one of the nation’s most selective campuses.

That means USC turned away 67% of its applicants, including some “legacies,” those who get extra points for being the children of USC graduates.

“I’ve had people screaming at me all spring about their kids not getting in,” said Joseph Allen, dean of admissions and financial aid. “They’ve been calling me every name in the book.”

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Such growing desirability punctures another wicked nickname for USC: University of Second Choice. That wasn’t true for the 71.4% of this year’s freshmen who considered USC their first choice. By comparison, 66.4% of UCLA freshmen counted UCLA their first choice; the others mostly wanted Berkeley or an Ivy League school.

Emboldened by their academic success story, USC officials decided to confront the image of the rich Trojan head on. They put together posters and took out ads claiming that students at California’s flagship public universities (Berkeley and UCLA) have a higher average family income than those at USC.

The source for such a bold claim? The ad cited the California Student Aid Commission.

Despite numerous requests, USC officials have never produced the documentation to support the ad.

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But the commission coughed it up under protest, saying the “data should not be published” because they are not statistically reliable.

The commission’s latest survey does show that the average income of UCLA students’ families is higher than for families of USC students, $72,831 to $68,373. Berkeley’s was lower: $64,255. But the survey of California students was never designed to compare family incomes of students at different campuses and does not have large enough samples from USC and many other schools, said Sarah Tyson-Joshua, the commission’s policy chief.

What are the best four years of a USC student’s life?

Third grade.

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I knew a UCLA grad who studied for five days . . . to prepare for a urine test.

USC and UCLA students also love to sling jokes about who’s dumb and who’s dumber. So do faithful alumni, particularly those suffering from a collegiate version of arrested development. Each campus draws its own distinct flavor.

While USC students are mocked as plain stupid, UCLA students get ribbed for lacking street smarts. These themes provide an added dimension to the jokes about class consciousness: Rich, private school brats versus poor, public school urchins. Stupid party animals vs. clueless, bookish nerds.

Is there some truth that keeps these jokes alive, gives them a punch?

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Well, yes. Despite the increasing similarity in income and ethnicity, the two campuses remain distinct. Just ask this year’s freshman class.

Although there are precious few data common to both universities, the American Freshman Survey conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute managed to reach about three-fourths of incoming freshmen on both campuses last fall. As it does with freshman across America, the comprehensive survey quizzed them about their backgrounds and beliefs on everything from beer drinking to premarital sex.

USC and UCLA officials were kind enough to share the answers from each freshman class.

Comparing the two groups, one can easily see where UCLA senior Jaclyn Parker gets the idea that USC teems with “rich, partying frat guys and sorority girls,” while “all UCLA ever does is study.”

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Four of 10 UCLA freshmen, for instance, devoted at least 11 hours a week to studying. Less than a third of USC freshmen reported the same dedication.

But half of the USC class said it spent that much time “socializing with friends,” according to the survey, compared with 42.5% of UCLA freshmen.

When it comes to partying, again their answers support the stereotype: Nearly 25% of USC students said they spent six or more hours a week partying, compared with 14.5% of UCLA freshmen. USC students were also more likely to report that they smoked or drank beer, wine and liquor. And they were far more interested in joining a fraternity or sorority.

Expectations about colleges also seem to fall along predictable lines, pragmatic USC students vs. dreamy UCLA scholars.

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At USC, freshmen were more confident than their UCLA counterparts that they would get a good job after graduating--not surprising given USC’s selling point about the “Trojan family” job and social network.

USC students were more inclined to think of college as an avenue to “get a better job” and “make more money,” while a higher proportion of Bruins than Trojans viewed college as preparation for graduate school.

UCLA freshmen were nearly twice as likely to say they wanted to be doctors or lawyers as those at USC. Trojans are more likely to be the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers.

Biology is the most popular major at UCLA. It’s business at USC.

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Tom Gonzalez, a USC economics major and son of an airline pilot, neatly sums up the attitude in a few words that he hurls at Bruins during big games: “You’ll work for me someday.”

No way, says Olivia San Wong, doctor’s daughter and captain of the UCLA yell crew. As for the spoiled Trojan stereotype, Wong says, “I don’t think it’s true that they all have tons of money. But they have to pay so much for the private school, they get this stigma.”

And that’s enough, she said. “It’s a fun thing to poke fun at them.”

How many Trojans does it take to change a tire?

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None. Daddy’s car lease lets you trade in the car for a new one.

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Cross-Town Rivals at a Glance: All Undergraduates

Cost of attendance

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*--*

UCLA (if living in dorms) USC $3,863* Tuition, fees $21,374 $877 Books, supplies $650 $7,285 Room, board $7,080 $460 Transportation $580 $1,691 Personal $1,634 $14,176 Total $31,318

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*--*

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UCLA The Freshman Class USC 32,792 1998 applications 21,400 33% % accepted 44.9% 1,272 Average SAT score 1,243 $68,230 Median parent income** $72,476 % of parents who make 7.0% more than $200,000 15.7% 48.6% % relying on student loans 86.2% 40% Spent 11 hours or more a week studying 32% 14.5% Spent 6 hours or more a week partying 24.8% 66.4% % who say their campus was their first choice 71.4%

*--*

Parents’ Income, UC Campuses

Average family income for students dependent on their parents as they pursue undergraduate degrees at University of California campuses.

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UC Santa Barbara: $73,221

UCLA: $72,831

UC Santa Cruz: $72,804

UC San Diego: $68,267

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UC Berkeley: $64,255

UC Davis: $63,284

UC Irvine: $51,594

UC Riverside: $43,117

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Source: Student Expenses and Resources Survey, 1997-98


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