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A new scandal shows some US parents taking extreme measures to avoid college costs

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  • Annabelle Timsit
By Annabelle Timsit

Geopolitics reporter

Two separate investigations published yesterday by ProPublica and the Wall Street Journal are highlighting the lengths some parents will go to in order to avoid paying the high cost of college tuition in the US. The publications found incidences of parents in wealthy Chicago suburbs prepared to give up custody of their teenage children in order to make them eligible for need-based financial aid.

It’s the latest in a wave of scandals that have engulfed the US college admission process. In March, a Justice Department investigation revealed an elaborate scheme, nicknamed “Varsity Blues,” in which rich parents cheated and bribed their kids’ way into elite universities using outlandish and sometimes illegal tricks.

According to the latest two investigations, dozens of Illinois parents exploited a loophole in the law that allows them to transfer guardianship of their teenagers to somebody else in order to detach the kids from their families’ finances. This allows them to qualify for thousands of dollars in federal, state, and university aid that they otherwise wouldn’t have been eligible for.

It’s unclear how prevalent this practice is. In the past year, ProPublica says it found more than 40 similar guardianship cases in the Illinois suburb of Lake County, as well as possible cases in five other counties. The Journal found 38 potential cases in Lake County in 2018.

The practice, referred to by some as “opportunity hoarding,” is legal but ethically questionable. Some of the students involved qualified for limited federal and state financial aid that was meant for poor students. As Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told ProPublica, “They are taking away opportunities from families that really need it.”

The Journal reports that the Department of Education is investigating the practice. “They are gaming the system,” Justin Draeger, CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, told the paper. “Whether it is legal or not doesn’t make it any less unsavory.”

Combined with the “Varsity Blues” operation, this scandal shows just how far some parents are willing to go to secure a spot for their child in the increasingly competitive and expensive world of elite American colleges. The typical families engaged in this scheme, according to ProPublica, made too much money to qualify for financial aid but not enough to pay for their desired college on their own.

Attending both public and private college is becoming more expensive in the US, quickly outpacing many families’ ability to pay for it. In 2008-2009, tuition, fees, and room and board at a private four-year college cost an average of $38,720 (in 2018 dollars). That grew to $48,510 by the 2018-2019 school year, according to the College Board. In that same time period, the cost of public four-year college rose almost 30% to $21,370 from $16,460.

Students who qualify for financial aid typically do not pay all the fees plus room and board, or what’s known as the “sticker price,” so these numbers do not reflect what most low-income students end up paying for their education.

Nearly one in five adult Americans have signed up for student loans, and owe a combined total of $1.47 trillion. It takes most borrowers 10 to 20 years to pay off those loans. The resulting student debt crisis has taken center-stage in the 2020 presidential election. All major Democratic presidential candidates have proposed measures to either help people pay off their loans, cancel some student debt, or to make four-year public colleges tuition-free.

At their core, both scandals reflect a belief by some parents that elite private schools are the be-all-end-all of a good education. But, as Quartz’s Jenny Anderson writes, “the prestige of a university does not determine what a student learns, their happiness at school, or how satisfied they are with their lives after graduation.”

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