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Wealthy Parents Are Giving Up Custody Of Their Kids To Get Cheaper College Tuition

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graduating student taking photo with parents

It seems a plethora of suburban Chicago parents have found a loophole in the rigorous and demanding college and financial aid process.

According to a report by the nonprofit news organization, ProPublica, there are around 40 cases of families in the Illinois/Chicago area who were choosing an unconventional method to make sure that not only were their kids able to get into college, but wouldn't be paying astronomical amounts in tuition.

Parents are choosing to give up custody of their kids to get cheaper college tuition.

Per ProPublica's report, parents in Chicago have been giving up legal custody of their children as they near college age in order to make the kids look less wealthy and maximize the amount of need-based financial aid they receive for school.

During the child's junior or senior year in high school, parents are putting their kids under the supervision of a friend, aunt, cousin, or grandparent. The guardianship status then allows the students to declare themselves financially independent of their families so they can qualify for federal, state, and university aid.

This phenomenon comes just a few years after the infamous "Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal, where wealthy and famous parents were legally charged with influencing the undergraduate admissions process to get their children into top schools.

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However, unlike that scandal, the desperation from these Chicago parents spawns from the fact that colleges and universities are wildly expensive, and the process of getting financial aid is pretty much impossible for so many individuals.

   

   

This practice was uncovered in north suburban Lake County, where almost four dozen guardianships were filed in the past 18 months. On top of that, similar petitions have been filed in at least five other counties and it seems this practice may be happening throughout the country. 

Andy Borst, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told ProPublica that he initially got suspicious when a high school counselor from an affluent Chicago suburb called him about a year ago to ask why a particular student had been invited to an orientation program for low-income students.

When Borst checked the student's financial aid application, he found that she had obtained a legal guardian to make her eligible for financial aid independently.

Since then, the University of Illinois found 14 other applicants who've done the same. Three of them just completed their freshman year and 11 planned to enroll in the fall. 

The parents involved in these practices are employed as lawyers, doctors, and other high-end careers.

ProPublica found that more than 40 guardianship cases fitting this profile were filed between January 2018 and June 2019 in the Chicago suburbs of Lake County alone. Many of these kids were high-achieving scholars, athletes, and musicians who attended or have been accepted to a range of universities, from large public institutions to smaller private colleges.

Parents Are Giving Up Custody Of Their Kids To Get Cheaper College TuitionPhoto: LeoPatrizi / Canva Pro

However, Borst felt these practices are simply a scam that wealthy parents use to their advantage which only ends up taking away from the teenagers who actually need financial assistance.

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"It’s a scam,” Borst said. “Wealthy families are manipulating the financial aid process to be eligible for financial aid they would not be otherwise eligible for. They are taking away opportunities from families that really need it."

It's unclear if this type of practice is legal or not.

A student in a legal guardianship doesn't need to disclose parental information to FAFSA, according to the U.S. Department of Education's website, but the question of whether it's wrong is still being asked. 

It doesn't help that financial aid is such a complicated process for many high school students and their parents, especially in marginalized and low-income communities. According to a report from the National College Attainment Network only 24% of four-year and 40% of two-year public colleges can be considered affordable.

Similarly, with the cost of college tuition increasing, 34% of young adults who aren't currently enrolled in college say it's because they can't afford it. The national student loan debt is over one trillion in both federal and private loans, and the reality is that a majority of enrolled college students will most likely have to take out loans just to make it through those four years of school.

   

   

The kicker is that once young adults graduate from college, not only do they have to start worrying about paying those loans back, but they're also battling an equally frustrating job market and economy that make it hard to find affordable housing and livable wages. 

The idea of going to college shouldn't be filled with hoops that children and their parents must jump through just to make sure the chance of receiving higher education is possible. At the end of the day, the college financial aid system is incredibly flawed, and the college process is equally discouraging.

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Nia Tipton is a Chicago-based entertainment, news, and lifestyle writer whose work delves into modern-day issues and experiences.