To address families abusing the system to gain college assistance, legislators need to amend the guardianship statute.
Shining a light on an unsavory practice is sometimes all that’s necessary to slow it down or even bring it to a screeching halt.
That appears to be what’s happened since ProPublica Illinois, a public interest news reporting organization, exposed the growing practice of parents giving up their legal rights to college-age children for the sole purpose of making those not-really-independent individuals eligible for more taxpayer-provided financial aid.
Reaction was immediate after ProPublica in late July published the results of its investigation into this growing practice.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, for starters, expressed anger that parents would try to game the system by trying to minimize their financial exposure for the cost of their children’s education at taxpayer expense.
Others, including state legislators, quickly jumped on the condemnation bandwagon, to the extent that a follow-up ProPublica story indicates many parents who were pursuing transferring guardianship of a child to a third party no longer are.
“Though some families remain unapologetic about their use of a practice that has gone largely unnoticed until three weeks ago, they say the real issue is not that they tried to take a advantage of a legal loophole but the exorbitant cost of higher education,” reporters Jodi Cohen and Melissa Sanchez wrote.
The parents are half right.
College costs are a real challenge for many families. But scamming the taxpayers through charade guardianship transfers is wrong for a variety of reasons.
For starters, the state law on guardianship wasn’t meant to be used as a vehicle to obtain additional financial aid.
Here’s one example ProPublica cited.
Denied a guardianship transfer in Lake County, a Long Grove couple filed a second guardianship transfer request in McHenry County. The family claimed that it was in their son’s best interest to “obtain independent student status in order to qualify for financial aid necessary for the minor to attend a state college.”
But Judge Michael Chmiel expressed skepticism after he was informed that the parents would continue to support their son.
“So it’s a charade,” the judge said.
The lawyer representing the family insisted it’s “not a charade.” But who’s kidding whom?
The guardians who have been appointed aren’t really guardians. Parents aren’t really abandoning their roles in their children’s lives, they’re just saying they are.
This is just questionable legal gamesmanship that legislators should specifically forbid by amending the guardianship statute. Unless legislators in Illinois and elsewhere act, people will continue to be tempted to perpetrate this fraud on both the taxpayers and the courts.
Further, let’s not forget about truly needy students denied financial aid because it went to another student whose parents took advantage of the system.
ProPublica identified the parents who go this route as upper-middle class professionals with healthy incomes, too healthy to qualify for as much financial aid as they want but not wealthy enough to pay up front for college tuition, housing, books, etc.
They, naturally, want to help their children avoid heavy borrowing to fund their education.
That requires tough choices driven by financial realities and individual circumstances. Parents make them all the time without trying to take advantage of their fellow citizens.