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Parents exploit financial aid loophole

The latest college admissions scandal costs taxpayers and needy students

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus Facebook/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Parents exploit financial aid loophole

Some Chicago-area parents have been gaming the financial aid system to get scholarships for their children that should go to needy students. A recent investigation by ProPublica and The Wall Street Journal uncovered the technically legal but unethical practice of parents transferring custody of their college-bound children to friends and relatives who make less money. Coming on the heels of the college bribery admissions racket in which 19 wealthy parents face criminal charges, the Chicago scandal puts more pressure on the U.S. Department of Education to close financial aid and admissions loopholes.

One anonymous Chicago-area woman told the Journal she transferred custody of her 17-year-old daughter to a business partner, which only involved paperwork and a meeting with an attorney. The woman said her and her husband’s annual income of $250,000 was insufficient to cover their daughter’s tuition after they had already spent $600,000 paying for their other children to attend college. She also said they had no equity in their home, which was valued at $1.2 million.

After transferring guardianship, the teen only had to claim as income the $4,200 she earned at a summer job, allowing her to receive $20,000 in need-based aid, according to the mother.

Some parents reportedly transferred guardianship at the advice of Destination College, an Illinois-based consulting firm, which claims to help parents pay for college “in the most efficient and inexpensive way.” According to ProPublica, the students involved were accepted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University Bloomington, the University of Missouri, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The schools are investigating the claims.

“They are gaming the system, whether it is legal or not doesn’t make it any less unsavory,” Justin Draeger, CEO and president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, told the Journal.

The Education Department is considering updating the term “guardianship” to exclude students who continue to receive medical and financial support from their parents. While the scope of parents using this loophole is unknown, the Chicago case could trigger similar investigations across the country as other college officials begin looking for patterns.

Meanwhile, parents continue to look for creative—and not always legal—ways to get their children around the barriers to college admission and attendance. Prominent Miami developer and investor Robert Zangrillo is fighting charges that he paid $250,000 to get his daughter into the University of Southern California as a fake athlete. He claims he is no different than many parents who make formal donations to the college to give their children an advantage during the admissions process. Zangrillo is one of the parents, along with actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, charged in “Operation Varsity Blues” for paying to get their children into elite U.S. colleges.

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed last week, four student body presidents at schools embroiled in the controversy—USC, UCLA, Yale, and Stanford—said the admissions process remains rife with corruption: “We know that this illegal scheme is only one example of the many ways in which money influences the admissions process.”

The “Westward Vision” mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco

The “Westward Vision” mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco Associated Press/Photo by Eric Risberg

Covering up history

The San Francisco Board of Education voted in June to remove a series of 13 murals titled The Life of Washington from a public high school in the city due to criticism of their historic depiction of slaves and Native Americans. Yet a brief public showing earlier this month drew more than a hundred people, most of whom expressed support for keeping the 83-year-old fresco panels in place.

Clelia Donovan, a lecturer in Portuguese at the University of California, Berkeley, called the paintings depicting scenes from the life of President George Washington an “amazing work of art.” She expressed understanding for those who might feel negatively toward the murals but didn’t think that painting over them would “erase the causes of why they feel uncomfortable.”

Two panels in particular have drawn criticism since as far back as the late 1960s. “Mount Vernon” contains images of slaves working at Washington’s estate in Virginia. Another panel, “Westward Vision,” shows white pioneers stepping over the body of a fallen Native American as they forge ahead into the Western frontier.

Victor Arnautoff, a San Francisco–area artist and student of the renowned muralist Diego Rivera, painted the Great Depression–era murals. Supporters argue Arnautoff’s work was a political commentary on some of the nation’s troubling roots. Critics disagree, insisting that the images are racist and don’t belong in school hallways.

“Kids don’t see these images as helpful or powerful, they see them as insulting and demeaning,” George Washington High School student Kai Anderson-Lawson, who is Native American, said at a school board meeting on June 18.

Several African American leaders in the community have spoken out in favor of preserving the murals. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, called on the school board to reconsider its decision, arguing that painting over them was like erasing history.

Due to the public’s reaction, the board voted Tuesday to preserve the murals digitally so that historians can study them and plan to install solid panels over the works of art instead of painting over them. —Laura Edghill

The “Westward Vision” mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco

The “Westward Vision” mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco Associated Press/Photo by Eric Risberg

So inappropriate

A California middle school teacher on the first day of school distributed a worksheet to his students titled “The Gender Unicorn,” which defined gender identity and sexual orientation. The handout was part of a getting-to-know-you exercise but was not an assignment or requirement.

Denair Middle School Principal Amanda Silva, who was observing the second-period class, stopped science teacher Luis Davila Alvarado from distributing more worksheets. Superintendent Terry Metzger said Alvarado, who prefers the honorific “Mx.” instead of “Mr.,” wanted to help students understand his gender perspective. Metzger told The Modesto Bee that she and Silva had spoken with Alvarado about why “this was a poor decision.” School district policy requires teachers to discuss gender issues in health class but not in science classes. The district has not commented on any potential disciplinary action for the teacher.

“That has nothing to do with teaching about being transgender, or trying to educate people,” Jenn Weenk, one of several parents who expressed frustration and concern about the incident, told KOVR-TV. “That is an extremely personal question.”

The handout is a graphic from Trans Student Educational Resources, a “youth-led organization dedicated to transforming the educational environment for trans and gender-nonconforming students through advocacy and empowerment,” according to its website. —L.E.

Fewer textbook options

Textbook publisher Pearson may hold 40 percent of the industry’s market share, but a proposed merger of the next two largest publishers could create another heavyweight. Students, educators, and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a consumer protection group, asked the U.S. Department of Justice last week not to allow the merger between McGraw-Hill Education Inc. and Cengage Learning Holdings II Inc.

“The merger threatens to consolidate more power in the grasp of a handful of publishers, who have used their enormous market share to drive up prices for consumers over the course of the past few decades,” said the letter from U.S. PIRG.

If the merger goes through, the new company could control as much as 30 percent of the textbook market. —L.E.

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.


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