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LAUNCH THOUGHTS - Surrendering Custody: Is it Ethical?

LAUNCH founder, Lauren Joyce Hensel, discusses how the latest tactic being used by parents to game the American university financial aid system can be unethical.

And just like that, another college enrollment scandal breaks. This, ProPublica published a well-researched article uncovering massive financial aid exploitation tactics being utilized by parents in wealthy areas and affluent schools in the state of Illinois. To be fair, not all students who live in these wealthy suburbs of Chicago are in fact wealthy, but the article specifically states wealthy families utilizing this exploitation tactic. As someone who worked in college admissions for almost 10 years, I am disappointed in the integrity of the families, the so-called college consultant, and the judges who presided over these cases.

During my years in admissions, I was often asked if a student situation made them independent and able to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as such, and 99% of the time, my answer was no. I have sat across from parents who adamantly refuse to pay for school thinking it will make their child an independent on the FAFSA. When I have asked probing questions about having court documents to support the child being independent, many times these parents realize the lengthy and cumbersome process toward independent status

This past school year, about 82,000 Illinois students who qualified for the state of Illinois’ Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant did not receive it as it is awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. Basically, parents who willingly give up custody despite being able to afford university are depriving those who truly need financial assistance from receiving it - some of those students may even be in their own community.

Depending on the situation, admissions/financial aid offices currently ask for a variety of verification documents including bank statements, utility bills, SNAP benefits, and more. When it comes to legal guardianship, schools typically request a copy of the court’s decision. However, this may not be enough as the article points out. Do we want to get to the point where admissions offices are asking for family wills, bank statements, and more if admissions offices cannot determine the true reason for guardianship or if the student is still receiving support from parents?

"[Andy] Borst [Illinois’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions] said he first became suspicious when a high school counselor from an affluent Chicago suburb called him about a year ago to ask why a particular student had been invited to an orientation program for low-income students. Borst checked the student’s financial aid application and saw she had obtained a legal guardian, making her eligible to qualify for financial aid independently.”

In the perspective of the IECA Principles of Good Practice, the “college planner” utilized in many of these custody cases, did not uphold these principles, but the school counselors did. In this case, the IECA views the practice as unethical as it does not “represent each student accurately and fairly based upon a professional evaluation of the circumstances, requirements of the case, and needs of the student.” Therefore, it is unethical because the student did not truly need financial assistance given the multiple options available for the student’s post secondary career.

If college/university affordability is a concern to a family, LAUNCH encourages them to work with consultants who expand their perspective and are members of either IECA or HECA, which opens doors to opportunities in dual enrollment programs, junior college matriculation agreements with four-year universities, dual degree programs, accelerated bachelors/masters programs, intense scholarship searches, international university options, and work colleges.

The article states, “The Illinois Probate Act, the law that governs guardianship, does not specify circumstances in which guardianship should be denied.” While emancipation and giving up custody of a child is not illegal, this tactic brings ethics into question as the US Department of Education Federal Pell dollars are meant to help the neediest students attending a school.As judges have been tasked with maintaining a just society, are they fulfilling their duties by granting these guardianship cases? In my opinion, no.

Filing for emancipation and giving up legal guardianship is not something that should be done by most families despite its legality. It should be utilized in cases of unexpected and troubling events as the article points to: “Mothers are homeless, seeking mental health care or working two jobs and can’t care for a child, fathers are in prison, addicted to drugs or deported.” Guardianship to gain a financial aid advantage is not what guardianship is supposed to be utilized for. Therefore, judges are following the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law, thus enabling in unethical behavior. If judges did not grant guardianship in these cases, this tactic would not perpetuate and make a game of university admissions and their financial aid process.

While I am disheartened by these unethical practices, I am optimistic that Directors of Admissions such as Borst will continue to uncover these types of tactics in an effort to make education more inclusive, equitable, and productive for all students. #dreamlaunchsoar

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