Editorial: High college costs don't excuse gaming financial aid system

  • The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign identified 14 applicants who obtained legal guardians, making them eligible to qualify for financial aid independently.

    The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign identified 14 applicants who obtained legal guardians, making them eligible to qualify for financial aid independently. ProPublica Illinois/Kristen Norman

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 8/1/2019 2:19 PM

At the end of a report from last March, The Washington Post describes a meeting between William McGlashan, a wealthy senior executive of a global private-equity firm, and William Singer, the architect of a college admissions bribery scandal.

Citing court records, the report says the two men had just discussed the possibility of editing the image of McGlashan's son's face onto the body of a football kicker in order to trick University of Southern California officials into believing the youth was a football player. At one point, McGlashan calls the scheme "pretty funny" and says, "The way the world works these days is unbelievable."


The phrase comes to mind again today as we contemplate a ProPublica Illinois report detailing a practice whereby some affluent Illinois families, many from Lake County, transferred legal guardianship of their teenage children to other adults so that the children would be evaluated for financial aid on the basis of their own income and not their family's.

Some important considerations need to be emphasized.

For one, unlike the Varsity Blues case involving Singer, the Illinois situation is legal. For now. ProPublica's report certainly provides reason to study that.

For another, keep in mind that neither the Varsity Blues case nor the ProPublica report describes widespread activity. These are not strategies of wealthy people in general, but of specific individuals.

And for yet another, it is useful to break down that phrase "the way the world works today." The way the world works today when it comes to paying for college is that higher education costs are skyrocketing. A 2018 Forbes magazine report describes the price of college tuition growing at nearly eight times the pace of wages. Citing figures from the College Board, collegedata.com estimates annual costs for tuition, fees, room and board and other expenses to be more than $25,000 for four-year public institutions and nearly $51,000 for private schools.

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This is an unsettling picture, but it in no way excuses the behavior of parents who would stoop to gaming the public assistance system. Indeed, quite the opposite, it demonstrates how egregious their actions are in skimming for themselves limited resources that ought to go to students in real need.

Moreover, many, indeed perhaps most, students in guardianships may well be in situations that conform to the spirit of financial aid policies. Not only do the abusers' actions potentially divert resources from these legitimate applicants, they also cast suspicion on the very system that's so important to them and others.

Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told ProPublica he hopes "we can nip this in the bud now." We do, too.

Could something as simple as improving the financial aid vetting process identify abusers in advance? Or, must we take a more extreme approach of fashioning new legislation? All avenues deserve attention, but they start with a distinction Borst made. "If it is legal, at what point is it wrong?" he asks.

As if in reply, financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz told ProPublica, "This is the first time I have heard of something so brazen. It's completely unethical."

We ought not respond with a helpless shrug, as if the world has to work that way.

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