LOS ANGELES, CA-MAY 17, 2018: Tommy Trojan, officially known as the Trojan Shrine, is a life-size bronze statue of a Trojan warrior located on the USC campus in Los Angeles on May 17, 2018. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
Former students filed a class action lawsuit alleging USC Rossier School of Education fraudulently advertised and inflated the graduate school’s online education programs. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The University of Southern California’s education school was sued Tuesday by former students who claim that officials violated state law by falsely advertising the graduate program’s high online degree ranking, which was based in part on fraudulent data submitted to US News & World Report’s college rating list.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that USC and 2U Inc., a technology company hired by the university to recruit students and provide technical support for its online programs, “aggressively advertised” the Rossier School of Education’s “ fraudulent” rankings to bolster enrollment in online offerings.

“People certainly paid a premium given how expensive the school is,” said Kristen Simplicio, an attorney representing the students. “That ranking was one of the reasons that school was able to charge as much as it did.”

A spokesperson for USC said the university had not received the lawsuit as of Tuesday morning. 2U did not immediately return a request seeking comment.

The Rossier School came under scrutiny last March, when USC administrators pulled it from US News & World Report’s next annual ranking of best graduate schools because campus officials had identified a “history of inaccuracies” in data reporting.

“Defendants never disclosed to those interested in the online programs that the ranking relied on data measuring only a select portion of USC Rossier’s in-person degree programs,” the complaint says. “Defendants used the rank to mislead hundreds of students, many of whom were or wanted to be teachers, into enrolling at the school, as well as to pay its steep price tag.”

The complaint included screenshots of advertisements on the Rossier School of Education website touting its US News ranking and a school Twitter account that described its master’s program in teaching as “top-ranked.”

Attorneys for the students are asking the court to order USC and 2U to return tuition and other costs to the more than 1,000 students 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 profits it made through the courses.

An internal USC investigation found that two deans in the Rossier School directed officials to leave out key data submitted to the US News & World Report list, moves that contributed to the school’s ascent in the rankings.

The actions created the impression that Rossier’s “doctoral programs were much smaller and more selective than they actually were,” according to a report by Jones Day, an independent law firm hired by USC.

The report describes 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 deans approved the misreporting, although Noguera in late 2021 alerted the school’s provost to a possible problem.

The omitted data mostly involved student selectivity, which accounts for 18% of a school’s score by US News.

Staff were told to leave out data from the EdD program and to include only data from the PhD program, even though survey instructions required both.

The EdD program, which is generally aimed at developing education professionals such as principals and superintendents, accepts far more students than the PhD program, which is more selective and intended toward developing scholars and professors.

Noguera later said he mistakenly believed that the university’s Office of Institutional Research was verifying the data submitted by the school and accepted the responsibility for continuing the practice of inaccurately reporting data during his first year as dean.

According to the lawsuit, USC shot up in the US News rankings of education schools over the years because of the incomplete data, leaping from No. 38 in 2008 to No. 10 in 2018. Most recently, it ranked No. 11 among education schools. The website now lists Rossier as “unranked.”

Iola Favell, one of the students suing the university, received a master’s degree in teaching from Rossier in May 2021. She said she was drawn to the school because of its high ranking.

Favell said he began to regret the decision during the first semester, when he felt he had to learn much of the course material on his own through independent projects. After starting work as an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, it became increasingly apparent that the program had failed to prepare her for the difficulties of teaching, including understanding special education, she said.

Favell said he relied almost entirely on the US News ranking in selecting USC’s program and would not have enrolled there if he knew the school’s ranking was based on flawed data.

“It was definitely not worth what I paid for it,” said Favell, who borrowed more than $100,000 in student loans to cover tuition and other costs. “I just wish I had known this information before I chose a program.”

Tuition for USC’s master’s program in teaching costs nearly $60,000, and its master’s program in school counseling costs nearly $105,000, according to the school’s website. Tuition for the online EdD program runs between $91,890 and $128,220.

Eric Rothschild, an attorney with National Student Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that is representing the students, said the Rossier programs did not live up 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.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.