Ethical College Admissions: Fool Me Twice

What possible reason could the parents in the latest admissions scandal have had, writes Jim Jump.

August 5, 2019

For the second time in six months, “college admissions” and “scandal” appear in the same sentence.

Last week ProPublica Illinois and The Wall Street Journal revealed that parents in suburban Chicago had taken part in a scam to increase their children’s eligibility for need-based financial aid for college. The scam, apparently devised by independent college consultant Lora Georgieva, owner of Destination College in Lincolnshire, Ill., involved parents giving up legal guardianship of their children during the junior or senior year of high school to a friend or family member. That allowed the student to claim independent status, meaning that eligibility for financial aid was based only on the student’s earnings rather than the parents’ income and assets.

Yes, you read that correctly. Parents gave up legal guardianship of their children for the purpose of qualifying for financial aid for college. In Lake County, Ill., alone, there were 38 cases in 2018 where a probate court judge granted transfer of guardianship for a teenager in the junior or senior year of high school. Most of those cases involved families living in homes valued at more that $500,000.

The story raises a number of questions. Did no one in the legal system in Lake County find an epidemic of wealthy parents giving up guardianship of their high school children in the least bit suspicious? Nearly all of the 38 cases above were filed with similar language: ”The guardian can provide educational and financial support and opportunities to the minor that her parents could not otherwise provide.” I have read enough Scott Turow novels and watched enough episodes of The Good Wife to know that the judicial system in Illinois may be less than pure, but really?

The fundamental question, of course, is “What’s wrong with these parents?” Is this a case of nature or nurture? Were these parents born with an enlarged sense of entitlement instead of a moral compass? Or is there something about the college admissions process that brings out the worst in people?

The only thing more outrageous than the story itself is that the guardianship scam is apparently not against the law. That is likely to change. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating the cases. At the very least, there will be new language in the Federal Student Aid handbook regarding legal guardianship. But if it turns out that some of the parents who gave up guardianship continued to pay for the child’s health insurance or cellphone expenses, that might lead to prosecution for fraud.

Of course, even if the guardianship ploy is legal, that doesn’t make it ethical. Ethics are normative, expressing ideals and trying to answer the question “How should we act?” Just because one can do something, the naturalistic fallacy points out, doesn’t mean that one should. It is hard to imagine a world where what these parents did is OK, even if not against the law.

There are plenty of similarities between this case and the Operation Varsity Blues scandal from March. Both will be labeled as “college admissions scandals,” and yet in neither case have any admission officers been implicated. Operation Varsity Blues was really about athletic recruiting, and this case about financial aid. Both cases involved wealthy parents conspiring with an independent educational consultant to gain advantage, and in both cases a suspicious and heroic school counselor was the whistle-blower who uncovered the fraud. In the current case, the tip-off was a wealthy student receiving an invitation to an orientation for low-income students at the University of Illinois.

I think this case is more troubling and egregious than Operation Varsity Blues, which is saying something. It is one level of corruption to use your own money to buy influence and admission for your child, but far worse to use other people’s money, and that’s in effect what happened here.

The impact of the guardianship scheme was that the students involved qualified for state and federal grants in addition to institutional funds, and that means that they were bilking taxpayers to pay for college for their children. Because those funds are limited, they took opportunity away from students with genuine need. According to ProPublica, last year 82,000 Illinois students eligible for a state grant for low-income students didn’t receive one because the program ran out of money. The parents involved here were reverse Robin Hoods, taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

What is also tragic about this scheme is that it turned the students into co-conspirators. In Operation Varsity Blues, one of the tragedies was that in a number of cases (certainly not all) the students were unaware that their parents had engaged Rick Singer and his cronies to cheat on the SAT and to bribe coaches and athletic officials for admission slots. That sent an awful message that the parents didn’t trust their children to get into college on their own, or at least not to a place that would bring the parent sufficient status.

In this case the students were not innocent victims but part of the scam (unless I’ve missed an important detail and a student can still live in the same house as the parents once they have given up guardianship). So not only have parents sent a message to their offspring that love of money trumps love of children and that parental responsibility is situational, the children have been placed in potential legal jeopardy as well.

A lawyer for the law firm that filed the majority of the guardianship petitions in Lake County told The Wall Street Journal that the guardianship law was written very broadly, with best interest of the child being the legal standard. “I think it’s hard to argue that this is not in the student’s best interest,” she argued.

It’s not hard to make that argument at all, and in fact that reasoning is exactly why the public distrusts lawyers. This is not a case where a change in guardianship was necessary for the child to be able to go to college, but rather where guardianship was a way to game the financial aid system. Giving up parental rights may have been in the best interest of the parent, but not the student. What’s in the student’s best interest is having parents who set a good example for what it’s like to be responsible and ethical parents and citizens. The counterexample set by these parents will do long-term damage that may not be repairable.

And what long-term damage will there be for public trust in the college admissions process? Much of the discussion in the wake of Operation Varsity Blues has been that the scandal was business as usual. It wasn’t, but both scandals support the notion that there is a separate entrance to college for the wealthy, and that even if admission offices are not pointing the way, they are not as vigilant as they should be to ensure that the side door is locked and secure.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice? We can’t afford a third time.

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Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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