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At least four dozen parents in the suburbs of Chicago were found to have been giving up guardianship of their high school-aged kids in order for them to qualify for college financial aid and scholarships, an investigation by ProPublica Illinois found.

By transferring guardianship to friends or other family members, students are allowed to declare themselves financially independent, thus allowing them to qualify for state aid they wouldn’t ordinarily be privy to. A University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign admissions officer, Andy Borst, was tipped off to the practice when a high school counselor from a wealthy Chicago suburb called to ask why a student was invited to an orientation program for low-income students; from there, the University of Illinois went on to identify 14 applicants who had also obtained a legal guardian. From ProPublica:

ProPublica Illinois found more than 40 guardianship cases fitting this profile filed between January 2018 and June 2019 in the Chicago suburbs of Lake County alone. The parents involved in these cases include lawyers, a doctor and an assistant schools superintendent, as well as insurance and real estate agents. A number of the children are high-achieving scholars, athletes and musicians who attend or have been accepted to a range of universities, from large public institutions, including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Missouri and Indiana University, to smaller private colleges.

“It’s not like these families are close or on the tipping point” of being eligible for the aid, Borst told ProPublica. “I don’t know how big this is, but I hope we can nip this in the bud now. … If it is legal, at what point is it wrong?”

In most of the cases identified, the quest for guardianship was handled by two law firms, one of which was Kabbe Law Group. Mari Berlin, an attorney for the group, represented one guardianship case in which a student’s “parents are finalizing a divorce and can’t afford to support his college education,” meaning he will have to finance it himself. But this presents a problem: In order to qualify for FAFSA, students have to prove formal separation from their parents to qualify, regardless of whether their parents intend to help them pay for college or not:

Berlin said families who are going this route are in a financial position where their income is too high to qualify for financial aid but they still will struggle to pay for college. While this is an atypical use of guardianship, Berlin said, families have a strong legal basis for bringing the cases. The law doesn’t preclude it, she said.

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The U.S. spends more on college than nearly every other country; in 2018, the average cost for attending school at a public institution topped out at $21,370 per year. (Private schools averaged $48,510.)

ProPublica is continuing to investigate how widespread the practice is on a national level. Read the full story here.