In a striking recognition that college has become unaffordable for many middle-class students, the University of Southern California announced Thursday it would make its education tuition-free for students from families with an annual income of $80,000 or less, starting in the fall.

As the major private university in Southern California, USC plays an outsize role in Los Angeles, giving the move high symbolic as well as practical value.

USC’s president, Carol Folt, who was hired last year, said the offer of free tuition would help the university compete for lower-income students who might otherwise attend California’s public system, which is relatively generous with financial aid and offers significantly lower costs.

The university will also take into account the skyrocketing value of housing in Southern California; owning a home will no longer be counted in the calculation used to determine a student’s financial need. High real estate prices can exaggerate the wealth of families who have a large part of their net worth tied up in their homes.

In the past decade, USC has worked to become a top-tier academic institution, but the elite private campus of 44,000 students in the heart of L.A. has also been rocked by scandal, including revelations that a longtime gynecologist at the university’s health center had been accused of sexual misconduct, and the resignation of the dean of the medical school over allegations of drug use on campus.

Then last year, dozens of wealthy parents were accused of bribing their children’s way into the school, bringing renewed attention to class divides on the campus.

USC’s announcement comes amid a national push to make college tuition more affordable. About 42 million borrowers owe $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loans across the U.S., experts said.

Continually rising college costs mean that debt load isn’t likely to drop much in the next few decades. The average student borrower takes out about $26,000 in loans over the course of earning a bachelor’s degree — debt that is impossible to discharge in bankruptcy, difficult to have forgiven, and increasingly unlikely to be fully repaid on schedule.

Tuition at USC was roughly $57,000 this academic year.