From today’s edition of what-were-they-thinking?: Some affluent Lake County, Illinois, parents used the court system to transfer guardianship of their teenage children to other people solely to get access to college financial aid intended for the needy.
This was apparently a legal process, though we hope the loophole is closed ASAP. Morally, it represents an unconscionable abuse.
According to reporting by ProPublica and the Wall Street Journal, several dozen parents in well-off Chicago suburbs transferred guardianship of teens who were juniors or seniors in high school to friends or family members. The teens were then able to report only their own small income on financial aid forms, which allowed them to claim and receive money meant for poor students.
The investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Education has suggested a possible fix, according to the Journal: tightening the language about legal guardianship in the Federal Student Aid handbook. This seems like a good start. University financial aid offices and college counselors also have a role to play in ending this abuse.
And oh, yes: Parents and teens need to honestly report their financial circumstances. The college experience should be an accrual of life lessons. What does it teach teenagers when their parents sign them out of the family and ask them to declare poverty to position themselves for ill-gotten benefits?
Like the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal that broke earlier this year, in which rich families were accused of bribing their kids into elite colleges, this is not a victimless act. Money is diverted from students in real need, as grant money does run out. This could make the difference between whether a low-income teen can afford to attend college or not. Court resources are wasted on nonsense guardianship requests that flout the intention of financial aid regulations.
The Wall Street Journal found 38 similar incidents in a study of 1,000 probate cases in Lake County. The reporting described a Chicago-area woman with a household income of more than $250,000 a year who transferred guardianship of her then-17-year-old daughter to her business partner. Claiming only her $4,200 summer job earnings, instead of her parents’ income, the teen secured $20,000 in need-based aid, including a federal Pell Grant. Yes, taxpayers foot the bill for some of this.
There is some credit due in this outrageous saga. Not to the “college consulting” company apparently involved, and not to the law firms who shepherded the guardianship requests. Rather, we salute the high school counselor, unnamed in the articles, who raised the issue after she smelled something rotten. And we applaud university officials who aren’t varnishing their words.
“It’s a scam,” Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told ProPublica.