USC and 2U Sued for Alleged U.S. News Rankings Fraud

The lawsuit alleges that the university withheld data in an attempt to inflate its national U.S. News ranking, which misled students on the quality of its programs.
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Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • A university investigation found the dean of its education school directed administrators to withhold information from a prominent ranking site.
  • Students who relied on college rankings say they were duped.
  • USC's online program management partner is also listed in the class-action lawsuit.

Former University of Southern California (USC) students say they want the university to pay for its role in inflating its education school's ranking.

USC students filed a class-action lawsuit against the institution Wednesday, specifically for its role in using the Rossier School of Education's "fraudulent rankings" to increase enrollment in its online program. USC's online program management (OPM) partner, the publicly traded company 2U, is also listed in the suit for its role in recruitment.

According to the lawsuit, USC Rossier rose from No. 38 in U.S. News & World Report's 2009 ranking of best graduate education schools to No. 10 in 2018. That jump came after the school began to submit data selectively to U.S. News for the ranking, leaving out "most of its doctoral students," the lawsuit alleges, which made it seem more selective than in actuality.

An internal investigation confirmed that a former USC dean instructed administrators to submit inaccurate data, The Wall Street Journal reported.

USC withdrew from the rankings in December.

The lawsuit claims that many students rely on U.S. News rankings to determine which schools have the best programs.

Because those rankings relied on false data, the plaintiffs feel that they were misled into enrolling in USC Rossier. The lawsuit also points to specific instances where USC Rossier lauded its ranking in U.S. News to entice prospective students.

"Driven by the false perception that USC Rossier is a 'top-ranked' program, hundreds of students enrolled in [USC's] online degrees every year," the lawsuit states. "Further, USC Rossier's artificially-inflated US News ranking has enabled [the institution] to charge these students significantly higher tuition than these students would pay if they attended other online or in-person graduate education programs in California."

The lawsuit adds that USC and 2U had a profit-share agreement that saw 2U take 60% of all tuition revenue from USC Rossier online students. Because 2U not only managed the online program but also recruitment for the education school, this agreement incentivized 2U to aggressively recruit students, the lawsuit alleges.

Plaintiffs ask that the court rule that USC and 2U must pay the restitution to class-action members. That includes paying back money that plaintiffs paid due to the school's misleading practices.

This suit mirrors class-action lawsuits against Columbia University over its rankings scandal. Columbia also faced accusations that it submitted falsified data to U.S. News & World Report.