Parents giving up custody to get their children need-based financial aid
August 1, 2019 9:19 PM   Subscribe

"First, parents turn over guardianship of their teenagers to a friend or relative. Then the student declares financial independence to qualify for tuition aid and scholarships." (ProPublica Illinois)
posted by meaty shoe puppet (38 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The RAGE this has been engendering towards the parents! Who certainly suck and I know exactly who these people are, and they suck.

But I also feel that the rage towards the cheater parents has been obscuring an important underlying problem: That due to Illinois's multi-decade budget crisis, funding for state universities has been repeatedly slashed -- far more than in other states -- and even state schools are now so prohibitively expensive in Illinois that doctors and lawyers are taking out second mortgages so their kids can avoid student loans. It can be cheaper for kids to pay out-of-state rates in Indiana or Wisconsin than to pay in-state rates in the Illinois system, especially when you can claim residency in the new state after a year and get in-state rates, and double especially with nearby states poaching Illinois's top students with generous aid packages that Illinois can't match. The bigger story here is the gutting of higher education funding in Illinois that has left even wealthy parents struggling to pay for state schools, combined with the terrible economic precarity that everyone fears for themselves and their children.

But yeah, this is a whole special level of people suuuuuuuucking. Maybe not Lori Loughlin level, but real bad, especially as some of these grants are intended for economically disadvantaged students and their funding runs out before all eligible students are covered; they are taking money directly from poor kids who hustled their way into college and NEED the state grant to stay there
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:52 PM on August 1, 2019 [27 favorites]

I knew so many kids in college who were working their way through because their parents refused to give them any money to live on or tuition or give them emancipation so they could get credit for not having what their parents refused to give them. The state determined your parents could afford however much and that's what you're on the hook for whether your parents give it to you or not. I knew SO MANY OF THEM. The fact that people get away with this scam even though kids who actually have nothing get treated like they have something that they then have to spend the rest of their lives paying back.

If we just taxed the rich we wouldn't have to do a second round of figuring out who's rich and who's poor that we already do via taxes. Just pay everyone's tuition out of taxes and stop this backwards nonsense.
posted by bleep at 9:56 PM on August 1, 2019 [83 favorites]

Well, I for one loved being claimed as an income tax deduction by my parents while being denied any assistance whatsoever from them for college because "we worked our way up and paid our way". [note: both parents worked for government contractors who would let them keep their full time benefited positions while going to state sponsored school that cost them about $100 a semester].

Reaganites. They have a very special responsibility in explaining why they didn't directly contribute to Trumpism and why we should bother to keep them around.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:39 PM on August 1, 2019 [35 favorites]

The rage this has been engendering is entirely understandable, and also feels like pitting poor families against upper-middle-class families over an entirely inadequate pool of resources. Given the system we have, it's obviously unethical for an insurance agent to be, effectively, dipping into a fund that already doesn't have enough money to pay for poor kids. But an insurance agent or doctor and their kids shouldn't be struggling to afford college either.

It all feels like a microcosm of a much broader political debate between universal programs and means-tested-to-hell schemes that try to pick out exactly who is deserving of help. Not only do these programs fail to help so many people, they divide the nation; Romney's 47% comment boiled that down to an entire political philosophy. Half the country has been convinced that government exists solely to take from them and give to others (going so far as calling what they receive "entitlements" and believing that the mortgage interest deduction and the roads they drive on are god-given rights while food stamps are welfare), which means that half the country wants the government to work as poorly as possible.
posted by zachlipton at 10:54 PM on August 1, 2019 [17 favorites]

The state determined your parents could afford however much and that's what you're on the hook for whether your parents give it to you or not.

Yeah. I know it’s popular to hate rich people these days (lol), but I‘m out of school 20 years and I know a dozen plus people who couldn’t go to college because their parent(s) (who wouldn’t give them the time of day) made too much money for their estranged kids to get financial aide. One dude lucked out in the end when the mother he hated died.

It’s hazy, but I also seem to remember that cost of living wasn’t taken into account. So if your divorced mother/father was just baaaarely keeping the lights on, the State of California just used a formula and decided your parent should give the rent money to Cal State Northridge or whatever.
posted by sideshow at 11:47 PM on August 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

Even back in the days of relatively cheap higher education, more than one of my peers was put in a bad situation because of the overly restrictive financial Independence rule. Parents essentially abandon kid during high school because they are insufficiency obsequious in the face of abuse, kid graduates high school and suddenly finds out their plans for higher education are screwed because the parents are either entirely nonresponsive or make too much money yet refuse to contribute to their child's education, kid works their ass off and maybe ends up only four or five years behind their peers was a common story when I was of that age.

Given the shittiness of the rule to begin with, I have a hard time being angry with those who can and do arrange their lives to benefit. I only wish that the people who sincerely needed the workaround didn't find it nearly impossible without cooperation.

Blaming people for gaming these already sick and broken systems makes no more sense to me than blaming cocks for cockfighting. We have developed a set of interlocking machines that manufacture more and more desperation farther and farther up the income ladder and we shouldn't be surprised when people act in accordance with that reality.
posted by wierdo at 12:16 AM on August 2, 2019 [17 favorites]

Yup, Bleep - that was me.

But hey get this... my mom took out the maximum loan amount offered every year. Tuition, books, admin fees, housing, living expenses - all of it. She made up the difference between my grant and small loans I took, so my tuition was covered. I supported myself and paid for *everything* else. I asked once to borrow about $100 during finals for lab materials - I was getting paid the next week, but the project was due before that. She said no. I said what about the loan money? She said *that money was to help her while I was in college*. I have no idea what the actual total she borrowed was or what it looks like now. And the kicker? Can't figure out what she did with it either. Nothing obvious, anyway.

So yeah. They better all be federal because I'm gonna be pissed if they try to make me pay it.

(And yeah, I keep her at arms distance for that reason, among others.)

If eighteen year olds are adults....then I really resent being financially tired to my parents in this way.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:06 AM on August 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

I am so happy to have this getting aired. It's seriously messed up when a homeless teenager gets told he can't get student aid because his parents are comfortable.

Worse: It at least used to be the case, a kid with divorced parents could force an estranged parent to pay college costs.
posted by Goofyy at 3:50 AM on August 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

Can we just institute free state-run college please? Stop the damn corporate welfare, start taxing billionaires and business, and let's stop the madness. And forgive the outstanding student loans while we're at it. I don't care about the loans I've already paid.

My youngest brother finished college a few years ago - like me, he was a late college-goer and was near 30 when he finished. He's got a job with not horrible pay, and his biggest worry bar none is paying student loans. It really shouldn't be this way.
posted by jzb at 4:38 AM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

I can't say for sure if it's related but it's worth pointing out that African American student enrollment at Illinois has been steadily declining over the past few years.
posted by mcmile at 4:56 AM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Students cannot just declare financial independence — even in cases where parents are able to pay but refuse to do so, Borst said

Yeah, tell me about it/still bitter
posted by thivaia at 5:09 AM on August 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

My youngest, who is 11 years old, saw this story on the TV news. She asked me about these adults who gave away their kids in order to get more college money, and then wanted to know, "Do they [the families] get them [the kids] back after?"

She was worried, see, that the kids and their parents wouldn't be a family afterwards. Oh, honey, there's so many more layers to this than the TV people bothered explaining.

(I, on the other hand, was wondering which adults would be going to parent/teacher conferences, or taking the kids to the doctor, or having them on their health insurance.)
posted by wenestvedt at 5:20 AM on August 2, 2019

I'd like to feel outrage about all this, but, luckily, I was born knowing that rich people were smarter than me. #selfsatisfiedsmirk
posted by Chitownfats at 5:43 AM on August 2, 2019

Can we just institute free state-run college please?

Free would be nice, but simply returning to the funding levels that the US maintained through much of the twentieth century would be enough. There were decades and decades where public schools were adequately funded so that you could pay your tuition with a part-time job and graduate without huge student loans. Free would be icing on that cake, but the real problem here of accessibility is something that can be solved fully within the existing system.

Good luck getting taxpayers and state legislators to support that, though. The coalitions and consensus about the importance of quality, accessible public education was systematically dismantled and would need to be rebuilt from scratch before that kind of public investment was possible.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:06 AM on August 2, 2019 [18 favorites]

Odds are good the well-off parents here cheated to get well off, so this is very on brand for them.
posted by COD at 6:10 AM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

One of the deeply shitty things about scams like this is that authorities then scramble to close the loopholes, and that ends up hurting students with legitimately crappy (or inadequate) parents. Most of the time, parents who lose custody of their children are not rich people. But often, they are dealing with dysfunction that would make it difficult for them to do the things they would need to do if their kid was going to qualify for financial aid. Are you selling drugs or sex to support your heroin habit? You need to produce a tax return documenting your earnings, or else your kid can't fill out a FAFSA. If you lied on that tax return, then you've committed a serious crime. If you didn't lie, then all of your prostitution/ drug-dealing income is going to be considered taxable, and it's also going to be taken into account when determining your kid's eligibility for financial aid, even if it's all gone because you immediately spent it on heroin. Closing this loophole would end up royally screwing over some people who have already been dealt a tough hand in life. That's what happened with provisions that made it possible for young adults to be declared financially independent. People abused those provisions, and it really screwed over a bunch of people who have legitimate reasons that they need to pay their own way through college.

And yeah, the solution to this is to have free or affordable college, supported by higher taxes. But I would be surprised if the people who participated in this scam want that solution.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:28 AM on August 2, 2019 [11 favorites]

Re: affordable college in Illinois -- Illinois, under the state constitution, is required to have a flat income tax, which has really put a straitjacket on the state's attempts to raise money through taxes, because raising taxes from 3% to 5% doesn't really bother the billionaires but is very painful for low-income families. We CAN'T "tax the rich" because it necessarily involves inflicting a lot more pain on the poor.

We're currently trying to amend the state constitution to allow for progressive tax rates (it's being called the "Fair Tax") and I'm relatively hopeful, but a state constitutional amendment is always a big lift.

Anyway, a progressive state income tax would do a whole lot to help return state institutions to functional levels (Illinois has the lowest government-employee-per-capita ratio in the entire US, in an attempt to cut our way out of the pain of our flat tax's limitations), and to make state higher education more affordable again.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:37 AM on August 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

I teach at the lowest tuition 4-year college in Georgia. Most of my students have their education covered by Pell Grants, the GI Bill, and/or Georgia's HOPE Scholarship (merit scholarship for those with>3.0). In many cases, these students are able to go to school full time, work a part time job, have a normal life, and not take out loans. It is pretty great. And then there are the ones who have nothing because they don't qualify for federal or state aid. Some of them are DACA recipients or visa holders--they often get a lot of parental and community support.

Then there are the ones whose parents simply refuse to help them. Often, they were unceremoniously kicked out of the house at 18 (frequently before they graduated high school) for being LGBTQ, or dating people of the wrong ethnicity or religion, or just because their parents didn't like them very much. Sometimes, this is considered a just punishment by their parents for their failure to qualify for HOPE. Sometimes, their parents just have that "pull yourself up by your bootstraps like I did" bullshit thing going on.

They are trying to work full time and go to school full time and still barely scraping by and taking out loans. It is incredibly hard and lonely and sad, and they are often unsuccessful in college because it's just too much to deal with.

On behalf of those students, fuck these people.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:54 AM on August 2, 2019 [23 favorites]

Back in my day, we just married super young to achieve the same result. *Grumble*

(Financial aid was only about 10% why I got married at 22, but it was part of the calculation. The relationship would ultimately prevent me from going to school as I had intended, and I’m still hurting from these decisions 13 years later.)
posted by itesser at 7:21 AM on August 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

Often, they were unceremoniously kicked out of the house at 18 (frequently before they graduated high school) for being LGBTQ

"Stay in the closet until you graduate" was the rule at MIT in my day.
posted by ocschwar at 7:31 AM on August 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

You need to produce a tax return documenting your earnings, or else your kid can't fill out a FAFSA.

Indeed. This bit me when I was thinking about college a few years after high school. My parents hadn't filed in a while, so... yeah. I expect there would have been a way that I could have worked around it, but the student aid folks weren't super helpful on that one. I ended up being very lucky and managed to swing finishing community college without any financial aid and was able to apply for it without my parents' returns when I was 25.
posted by jzb at 7:40 AM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

This was how I ended up married to a good friend for a while. According to the financial aid counselors getting the emancipation / financial independence was a hard fought legal battle with parents and time and money. Getting married was a day trip to the justice of the peace. So when my friend said "I have a humongous favor to ask, let's get married", we did.

Oh the fun of the next few years when getting to know someone having to say "Oh, by the way I'm married but it's nothing to be concerned about".
posted by zengargoyle at 7:41 AM on August 2, 2019 [13 favorites]

I was one of the few extremely lucky people to qualify for one of the "case-by-case basis" dependency waivers. I left an abusive home 5 days after turning 18 and had been living with my partner's family since. I argued that it was not safe for me to contact my parents for their financial information, particularly because they had threatened to manipulate me financially before (e.g. my father threatened to take me off his health insurance if I didn't come home). I had a letter from my therapist, a letter from the family I had run away to, and--crucially--a police report to back me up. If I hadn't had that police report, I don't think I would have qualified. Most kids from abusive families don't have that. They should be able to get independent student status anyway.
posted by brook horse at 7:48 AM on August 2, 2019 [10 favorites]

I expect there would have been a way that I could have worked around it, but the student aid folks weren't super helpful on that one.
As far as I know, there genuinely isn't a way to work around it, other than getting married, joining the military, or having a kid. The whole system is seriously fucked.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:52 AM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yep, my family was abusive and I hadn't lived at home since I was 15 but I couldn't get considered "independent" for financial aid purposes. Plus the amount of money they thought my parents could pay was preposterous - 20 grand a year when we could hardly afford Walmart clothes and there were 2 other kids wanting to go to college.

So I got married to a friend. I still ended up with student loans that really really suck, but at least I got to go and my loans were mostly subsidized Stafford loans.

I'm not mad at these folks really. I'm mad at the bullshit system that thinks parents should pay for their kids college and that adults who want an education should be forced into this weird dependent role with their parents.
posted by congen at 8:26 AM on August 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

I know people who lived in fear of their abusive parents cutting them off like this, and at least one person who had to basically establish emancipation. I hate to think how closing this ugly loophole is going to affect people like that.
posted by praemunire at 8:43 AM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Can we just institute free state-run college please? Stop the damn corporate welfare, start taxing billionaires and business, and let's stop the madness. And forgive the outstanding student loans while we're at it. I don't care about the loans I've already paid.
The problem with "free state-run colleges" is that some states do it and others don't and then you get a rush of freeloaders from the "don't" states. You know, the same way that happened forty years ago when I was going to school ... Well, I don't recall that actually happening.

What I do recall is paying around $270 a quarter (really a "trimester") to get my B.S. at a time when the minimum wage was around $4.50. That comes out to 180 hours to fund a year. Today, the University of Minnesota tuition is around $15,000/year, which is something like 1500 hours to fund a year. So, back of the envelope, ten times the cost as the early 1980's. I think if we could even get back to that ten-times-cheaper point we would be in a much better place.

As for the outrage at the "cheaters," go them. I remember when my oldest daughter filled out the FUCKSA or whatever it's called for the first time and got the information that our "expected household contribution" was around most of our take-home pay. We were "too rich" to get any financial aid. Free college seems as reasonable as free roads and free fire protection--it's an infrastructural item that makes society work and then people wouldn't be penalized because their cheap-ass parents won't help them out but their "family is too rich."

Oh, spoiler: our kids all got to go to school and didn't end up with too many loans, but that doesn't help the people that weren't that lucky. It shouldn't be about "luck."
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 9:39 AM on August 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

So it's not like divorced/deadbeat parents are uncommon, and yet when I applied to colleges in 2003, as a first-gen student, it was near fucking impossible to convince colleges that I had no contact with my father much less a way to get him to provide financial info. Several colleges just never gave me a concrete financial aid offer. Some gave me a number that seemed ridiculously small for my single mom's income. Were they just putting in some random average salary number for my dad? There might have been other resources or paths to get around this conundrum, but fuck if I knew about them as a 17-year old first gen student.

Now as an adult I'm like, how the hell did the adult professionals in higher ed not have any apparatus for this not-uncommon problem?

I seem to have gone to college riiiiight before a lot of SLACs at least got better about making tuition very cheap for lower SES families. Consequently I have a lot more debt than if I'd gone to college even 5 years later. And I admit I am sort of vaguely resentful about it, but I'm not resentful at today's students for having hopefully an easier go of it than I did.

It is weird that in some of my circles I now hear a kind of ugly sentiment that "well if you're poor enough you just get a free ride everywhere, lucky you!"
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:54 AM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

What stood out to me in the article was how clearly this was the creation of a lawyer as a workaround, and that it seemed to be largely contained to a few geographic communities. As in, hey, I figured out a way for my kid to go to college cheaper, you can do it too. The standout feature is that all (most?) of the the kids seem to have gone to prestigious and expensive private schools before declaring emancipation and heading to college. This does stand out as distinct from kids from poor neighborhoods going to public schools who declare financial independence from their families.

And, yes, some deserving kids will be caught in the cracks of having their parents deny assistance after age 18 for various horrible and hypocritical reasons, but there is strong reason to believe that the kids involved (by their parents) in this scam continue to receive significant support from their origin families in ways that make this clearly a scam. Who continues to pay for health care coverage, car insurance, credit card debt, etc., are all ways to distinguish between real emancipation and phony emancipation. Free, or less expensive college is one answer, access to assistance without means checking is another, but let’s be clear that people were submitting false statements on legal documents to game a system they could probably have afforded to pay for at the expense of those who truly could not afford to pay for it.
posted by drossdragon at 10:18 AM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Now as an adult I'm like, how the hell did the adult professionals in higher ed not have any apparatus for this not-uncommon problem?
I'm an adult professional in higher ed, and this bullshit is responsible for approximately 64% of the times that I cry at work. Unfortunately, a lot of financial aid stuff is governed by Federal regulations, and those regulations are more concerned with preventing the kind of cheating that these families perpetrated than with making sure that every student has a chance to go to college.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:30 AM on August 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

Oh yeah, I did not at all mean to suggest that the professionals in general didn't care about this situation - just that yeah, the overall regulations continued to let a not-uncommon situation be like "welp, nothing we can do!" And the college administrations that do, implicitly, favor students whose families can pay.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:26 AM on August 2, 2019

They will never make college free because then no one would enlist in the military.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:14 PM on August 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

And not see the world on the taxpayer's dime and then go to college unable to relate? Baah!
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:56 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I haven't even read the article yet, but I used to work in financial aid and have a stepdaughter in school (she basically got a free ride, which is good because I couldn't afford it). Federal student aid algorithms are cold unfeeling machines that spit out the magic number, the EFC. This is the Expected Family Contribution. It can make or break a student, especially if the parent isn't helping. The process to be declared an Independent Student (an autonomous human) is terrible. Ugh. I'm so glad I'm out of the Financial Aid industry. I'm a waitress at a pizza joint now, and it's waaaaay better.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 7:55 PM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

There's not just an entitlement shown here; there's a thing I've often noticed in super privileged upper and upper-middle-class people of "Bad things won't happen to me." Not just in a situation of "I won't be caught doing this fraud thing," but "Nothing bad will happen when I sign guardianship of my children over to another person for this fraud." It really reminds me of privileged people I knew who would vacation (for example) in Middle Eastern countries where a giant part of their identity was illegal and people were executed for it. "But why would that happen to me?" And it's one thing to risk your own neck; but another to put your children up as collateral for it.
posted by Hypatia at 7:58 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I just had a conversation with a friend of mine who was against free education because it would make the US like Greece with no money. Fortunately, I got her around to consider the Australian model which is government "loans" that get paid back in taxes when you hit a magic salary number. I pointed out that it is a matter of tax redistribution and me being eye witness to the state university I worked at prior to Tim Pawlenty (fucker) helped. State university costs were 70% state, 30% fees and after Tim those numbers flipped. I pointed out that money has to be made up in some manner. And my school was hippy barebones with no lifestyle for students attached so our price tag was super low.
posted by jadepearl at 8:58 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

At least in the early 90s, private schools that have their own significant internal aid weren't, for those purposes, restricted to the federal formula. Thus I found myself at the age of 26 and married arguing with the financial aid office about their calculation of my parents' supposed contribution. I pretty much lost my temper and then realized on the way out of the office that it was probably unwise of me to yell at the director of financial aid. Nevertheless, they did end up changing their calculation. Totally coincidentally, the aid they ultimately came up with precisely met my tuition and fees and nothing more, despite a big chunk of unmet need as per the federal calculation.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:38 AM on August 3, 2019

pitting poor families against upper-middle-class families

yes, too bad the passive poor let themselves be pitted this way. any feelings they may have about the behavior of the significantly more fortunate are the result of tugs on their puppet strings, not the result of independent thought.

only upper-middle-class people with a good solid healthy wealthy income are permitted to hate those with much more money than they have. that's fine, that's good politics. but no wretch they're standing on with their upper-middle-class boots is supposed to hate them that way, that wasn't in the rules
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:13 PM on August 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

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