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How We Got the Story About Parents Transferring Guardianship of Their Kids to Win Financial Aid They Wouldn’t Otherwise Qualify For

A tip, and then lots of work — including looking through nearly 2,000 files — over a very short period of time.

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If you’re new here, welcome to our weekly ProPublica Illinois newsletter, where we take you behind the scenes of our work and share news from around the state. I’m Jodi Cohen, a reporter at ProPublica Illinois, and I wrote this week about families who transfer guardianship of their children to qualify for financial aid.

In the past, I’ve written about conditions in shelters for immigrant children and a family’s struggle with their son’s mental illness, made worse by a researcher’s wrongdoing. This week, I wanted to share some details about how I got the financial aid story.

Late last week, I got a confidential tip that relatively well-off parents in the Chicago suburbs were giving up guardianship of their children so they could get financial aid.

My first thought was: “What?!?!?”

I knew there was a story, if I could figure it out, and I had to tell someone. Even before I got to the newsroom, I sent a message to ProPublica Illinois Editor-in-Chief Louise Kiernan: “I just got the most amazing tip and I can’t wait to come back and tell you!!!!!!!!!!!”

“!” she responded.

I’ve covered higher education for many years and was part of a team that revealed the University of Illinois admissions clout scandal in which students from politically connected families got preference over more-qualified applicants. This latest tip was in my wheelhouse. I got to work.

First, I needed to find the records of these guardianship transfers, which the tipster told me had taken place in Lake County, a largely wealthy area north of Chicago. So I called up the Lake County courthouse and a clerk said, “Sure, come on up.”

The case records looked like medical files: long, long rows of folders organized by date. I asked if I could start with the most recent ones, and workers at the clerk’s office patiently pulled down stacks of files. I flipped past the estate cases and stopped at the folders labeled “minors person.” I finished one stack of files, gave it back and got the next batch. This went on all day.

Most of the records dealt with families in desperate situations who needed someone else to care for their children. Those records were primarily handwritten. Then I started seeing ones filled out by lawyers — typewritten — many of which had language about the guardianship changes being for educational and financial opportunities. They just stood out.

By the end of that day, I had gotten through maybe 800 files. My colleague Melissa Sanchez joined me the next day. In total, we looked through 1,800 cases from 2018 and 2019 in about 13 hours (plus 1,200 cases from 2017). We identified about four dozen we wanted to follow up on from the past 18 months.

We called the University of Illinois, the state’s flagship public university and the school of choice for many suburban students. We had learned through social media that some of the teens involved in the guardianship changes were U. of I. students or soon-to-be students. U. of I.’s admissions director said that he was aware of the situation, which he called a “scam,” and that he was trying to combat it.

Here’s how it worked: First, parents turned over guardianship of their teenagers to a friend or relative. Then, the student declared financial independence from their parents to qualify for tuition aid and scholarships. We’ve been told that many of the families used the same college consultant, a company called Destination College that boasts on its website of “strategies to lower tuition expenses.” The firm’s owner has not answered my questions but said elsewhere that she has done nothing wrong.

Melissa, Duaa Eldeib and I called other universities, lawyers, experts and parents. One of those parents, it turned out, is the lawyer who filed the majority of these guardianship petitions in Lake County. He also obtained a guardian for his own son. No matter what I asked, he just said “no comment.” He then ended the call.

Melissa talked to a man who had agreed to serve as another teenager’s guardian, who said he felt conflicted. He said he was told it would not take money away from other people.

But financial aid is not limitless. By doing this, other students who legitimately were eligible for financial aid might not get it, officials said. Last year, some 82,000 students eligible for a state grant for low-income students didn’t receive it because there wasn’t enough money.

Since the story published Monday, it has gotten a lot of attention and I’ve heard from people who are outraged about what they see as another way families are gaming the college admissions system. But I’ve also heard from people who think the tactic is a symptom of families feeling overwhelmed by the cost of college and desperate to find a way to pay for it.

Also since the story published, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General said it has recommended that the department modify language on financial aid forms to say that students with legal guardians would still be considered dependent on their parents for financial aid if they receive medical and financial support from them.

Illinois officials, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, also are looking into whether there are loopholes they can close. Citing our report, the Illinois House Higher Education Committee and the Appropriations-Higher Education Committee have scheduled a hearing next Thursday to hear testimony and “begin exploring legislative solutions” to the issue, according to a statement from the committees.

Keep in mind: The records we got were just from one county. If you know something about this, please reach out to us. We’re collecting stories, tips and other information via this form.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Interested in learning more about our work — and seeing some improv? Cards Against Humanity will feature ProPublica Illinois as part of its Late Night Writer’s Room event at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday, Aug. 17, at 7:30 p.m. And don’t worry; the Cards Against Humanity folks will handle the improv, not us. Details and tickets here.

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