Chicago-area families give up custody of kids in exchange for need-based college financial aid

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CHICAGO— Dozens of suburban Chicago families gave up custody of their children to get need-based college financial aid in return, ProPublica Illinois reports.

ProPublica found more than 40 cases in the past year of this practice in north suburban Lake County, but is investigating at least five more cases in other counties. It is a legal loophole in the financial aid system.

Parents gave up custody of their children in their junior or senior year of high school— usually to an aunt, cousin, grandparent or family friend. The student can then declare themselves financially independent, which qualifies them for more aid.

Melissa Sanchez from ProPublica is one of the reporters to look into court records. She said the parents who gave up custody are usually affluent.

"The parents are lawyers, doctors, teachers, there's one that was a suburban assistant superintendent and their homes are worth a half million, a million dollars," Sanchez said.

The director of undergraduate admissions at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said he became suspicious when a high school counselor from an affluent Chicago suburb called him last year to ask why a student had been invited to a program for low-income students. The university has since found 14 applicants who had obtained a legal guardian to receive the financial aid benefits.

A number of the students were high-achieving scholars, athletes and musicians. In addition to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, students who used this loophole were noted to attend University of Wisconsin, University of Missouri and private colleges.

These students have attended some of the Chicago area's most prestigious schools including Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire and Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook. The article also cited high schools in Lake Forest, Libertyville, Vernon Hills and Grayslake.

This legal loophole allows the students access to thousands of dollars in federal and state grant money that they normally would never qualify for, which potentially leaves out actual lower income students from receiving aid.

"There's a limited amount available," Sanchez said. "There were 82,000 kids denied MAP grants from the state because there's not enough money to go around."

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