An Underhanded, If Legal, Scheme to Get Financial Aid

When families try to game higher education, the neediest students suffer the most.

David Mercer / AP

As college admissions become more competitive, some families with means seem to be turning to underhanded methods of getting their kids into schools. For instance, the wealthy parents involved in the Varsity Blues admissions scandal earlier this year were charged with fraudulently boosting their children’s applications by obtaining fake athletics profiles and getting ringers to take their kids’ standardized tests, among other things. The parents at the elite D.C. private high school Sidwell Friends spread rumors about other students so their children might seem better in comparison. Now a new scheme described by ProPublica and The Wall Street Journal involves families seemingly machinating to get an unfair leg up in paying for a coveted seat at a university.

Yesterday, ProPublica and The Wall Street Journal reported on the legal—though ethically dubious—practice of parents in the Chicago suburbs turning over guardianship of their teenage children, typically in their junior or senior year of high school, to less well-off friends or relatives so that the children would qualify for need-based financial aid to help pay for college.

There are several reasons students might have a legitimate need to declare independence from their parents. Perhaps a student’s home situation was so fraught that she no longer lives with or receive financial support from her parents; perhaps she has entered entered the foster-care system, or is a ward of the courts. None of those things were the case in the instances ProPublica and the Journal reported on. As Andy Borst, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told ProPublica about the scheme happening at his university: “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.”

Rich children, from families in the top 20 percent of income, already enroll in college at three times the rate of students from the lowest 20 percent, a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics showed. And then, once low-income students do get to college, it can seem like a labyrinth to navigate, figuring out potentially unfamiliar concepts like office hours or, more simply, how they might eat—roadblock after roadblock after roadblock.

The guardianship scheme may be a more far-flung problem than just the cases reporters were able to identify. But even if it is limited to those cases, there could be broad consequences for low-income students in the future. Students who really do need to separate from their parents—or who have been separated from their parents by the state—could be regarded with more skepticism by financial-aid officers, and have a more difficult time receiving funds.

Scams like this can be hard for schools to spot. Admissions counselors can’t possibly catch bad behavior every time. As Jeff Selingo wrote in The Atlantic, “Admissions counselors are not hired to be detectives. An ever-increasing number of applications have swamped admissions offices in recent years, resulting in faster reading of files. Whereas once readers could spend 16 to 20 minutes on a given applicant, the average is now around eight minutes.”

Higher education has become unaffordable for millions of Americans. Even those who are wealthy feel as if they may not be able to afford college, but low-income people are hit the hardest. Pell grants and other programs are designated to help the neediest students, but instead, ProPublica reports that these funds may have gone in some cases to students from families who were too well-off to qualify as a result of this guardianship scheme. The current college-admissions system may be unfair for many Americans, but when families try to game that system, the neediest students suffer the most.