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Illinois Lawmakers Call Hearing to “Demand Answers” and Find Ways to Close a Loophole in College Financial Aid Scandal

Legislators said parents who turn over guardianship of their children to get financial aid engaged in a “manipulative practice.” They’re exploring whether they can subpoena parents to testify.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus (Kristen Norman for ProPublica Illinois)

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Illinois lawmakers on Thursday called a hearing next week to “demand answers” and explore legislation to close a loophole that has allowed families to turn over guardianship of their college-bound children to get need-based financial aid they wouldn’t otherwise receive.

One legislator said the two House higher education committees are exploring whether they can subpoena parents involved.

The move comes after a ProPublica Illinois investigation published this week revealed that dozens of families had exploited a loophole in state law to get financial aid.

The committees called it a “manipulative practice” that may have prevented other Illinois students from receiving grants or scholarships they deserved, according to Thursday’s announcement of the “Hearing on College Aid Scandal.”

The ProPublica Illinois investigation drew national attention and has also spurred the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General to call for reforms. That office, which called the tactic “student aid fraud,” has recommended modifying language on federal financial aid forms to clarify that students involved in this kind of guardianship no longer qualify for aid if they continue to receive medical and financial support from their parents.

Parents have been going to court to give up legal guardianship of their children to a relative or friend, typically when the teenagers are juniors or seniors in high school, the ProPublica Illinois investigation found. The students then are able to declare themselves financially independent and not have their parents’ earnings and assets considered when determining their eligibility for aid. They also can qualify for subsidized federal student loans.

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. The news organization has since identified 10 additional cases in McHenry County that appear to follow the same pattern.

A lawyer for one family wrote in a petition filed in McHenry County Circuit Court that “having a guardian would allow the minor to obtain independent student status in order to qualify for the financial aid necessary for the minor to attend a state college.” That family has since requested to withdraw its guardianship petition.

Mari Berlin, a lawyer who has represented many of the families, has said they filed for guardianship changes because they are desperate: Their income is too high to qualify for financial aid but they still struggle to pay for college. She said parents have a strong legal basis for bringing the guardianship cases and the law doesn’t preclude it.

Many of the families sought help from the same college consulting firm, Destination College, in suburban Lincolnshire. The company boasts on its website of “strategies to lower tuition expenses.” The company’s owner has declined to comment but has said elsewhere she did nothing wrong.

Rep. Carol Ammons, an Urbana Democrat and chair of the House Higher Education Committee, said she was disappointed that families were “dishonest” in applying for financial aid and hopes the committee can find legislative solutions to end the practice.

“It is incredibly important that we take on this task and work toward uncovering the truth,” Ammons said in a statement. She said the higher education committees, including the Appropriations-Higher Education Committee, are “focused on ensuring that students who need financial assistance are receiving it, and those who don’t need assistance are not able to take advantage of the system as a whole.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he has directed his staff to investigate the practice. The state has a limited pool of money to give low-income students. Last year, more than 80,000 students who were eligible for the Illinois Monetary Award Program, or MAP, grant did not receive it because there wasn’t enough money. The grant, up to $5,000, is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We want it to go to the students who are most in need, not to people who are defrauding the system,” Pritzker said at a news conference Wednesday.

Michelle Trame, University of lllinois’ director of student financial aid, said she hopes lawmakers are “thoughtful” in figuring out how to close the loopholes without creating barriers for students who are “truly in a guardianship.”

“It needs to be addressed and it’s not right. I don’t understand how a person would think it was OK to do this,” Trame said. “My biggest concern is that we don’t create hurdles for needy students. … My goal is to make sure the students who need the funds get the funds.”

Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations-Higher Education Committee, said lawmakers want to hear from the parents who turned over guardianship of their children to understand if they resorted to the tactic because they struggled to pay for college or if they “cheated the system.”

“They owe the public an explanation,” Ford said.

Some colleges, including the University of Illinois and University of Missouri, have said they will not provide university-based financial aid to students they determine have used guardianships to obtain financial assistance they otherwise would not be eligible to receive.

The University of Illinois, which over the last year identified 14 applicants who used this tactic, already has reduced university aid for three students. It also has begun asking more questions of students who recently entered into a guardianship, including whether they have contact with their parents, who they live with and who pays their health insurance and cellphone bills.

College officials have said that under the current policies, even if they do not provide university aid, they are still required to disburse federal and state aid to the students who qualify for it based on the guardianship status. The federal Pell grant and MAP grants combined can total about $11,000 a year.

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, the agency that administers the state aid programs, said agency officials will attend the hearing. This week, the agency encouraged universities to forward information if they suspected “a case of fraud” in obtaining state financial aid, according to a message sent to colleges.

Last year, 1,224 MAP recipients indicated they had a legal guardian before 18 when they applied for financial aid. ISAC said it believed “the vast majority” had guardians “for legitimate, and sadly, for often tragic reasons.”

The hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday on the sixth floor of the Michael A. Bilandic Building, 160 N. LaSalle St., in Chicago.

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