In 2021, a former student from USC tried making a purchase on USC’s online bookstore, considering alumni who buy through its website were provided a competitive discount on Apple products for one week of the year. But the discount failed to work.
Because the student was a certificate holder and not a “degreed alumni,” according to USC Associate Senior Vice President of Alumni Relations Patrick E. Auerbach in a statement, he was, in fact, not a member of the USC Alumni Association (USCAA).
Students who graduated from USC with a graduate certificate in 2000 onward were positive they’d be recognized as USCAA members and granted access to its exclusive perks. However, Auerbach claimed such students, all 1631 of them, were not entitled to them.
However, Brian Ralston, who completed a certificate in USC’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program in 2001, had already used the USC alumni directory, signed up for the lifetime @alumni.usc.edu email address and used his 10% bookstore discount in the years since.
His status as a USC alumnus, along with that of other graduate certificate holders, had been revoked without his knowledge, despite the university allegedly advertising to Ralston “lifelong membership” to the USCAA before his enrollment and even after completing the program.
Ralston filed a class action lawsuit against the USCAA last June, alleging the association had committed a breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, false advertising and more.
“The question is, might these graduate certificate holders lost out on some employment opportunities if an employer did a quick fact check in the directory, didn’t see them there and thought they might have been lying about going to USC, when in fact they did attend?” says Lizelle Brandt, the lead attorney representing Ralston. “They were taken out of the directory when they used to be there.”
Both parties reached a preliminary settlement at the beginning of August, and the USCAA agreed to reinstate all alumni benefits and award previous certificate holders from 2000 to the present a $50 gift card. The settlement awaits approval from The Superior Court of California County of Los Angeles, Central District, on October 11.
However, USC does not claim any wrongdoing, instead deciding to settle the lawsuit to avoid further expenses, totaling almost $250,000 between attorney fees and gift card expenditures.
USC redefines who alumni are
While the USCAA did tout in the summer of 2000 that they would make alumni membership accessible to all graduates, USCAA’s Board of Governors changed the bylaws “over 5 years ago,” according to court documents, limiting membership to “degreed alumni,” such as those with bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees.
But Ralston’s suit alleged that USC consistently informed him and other certificate holders they would graduate with a USC degree, granting them USCAA membership and all entitled benefits. USC also never distinguished the graduate certificate “degree program” from graduates of any other USC degree. The website only stated that being a degree holder, no matter the kind, was the only prerequisite for a lifetime membership.
While USC never conceded to any wrongdoing, one of the court filings stated, “… there is also a public benefit served, because the Settlement requires Defendants to review their advertising relating to the GRCT programs to ensure that it accurately describes whether students in a GRCT program will become members of the USCAA upon graduation.”
What institutions can learn from this
With non-degree programs and certificates becoming increasingly attractive credentials to employers, schools should be mindful of how they advertise their materials to potential students.
Harvard Business School’s website specifically designates which programs, certificates and degrees grant alumni status and which don’t. MIT makes similar distinctions for its executive certificates. Moreover, UCLA grants alumni benefits to its certificate degree program graduates.