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When news[1]broke of a scheme hatched by north suburban Chicago parents to give up their custodial rights to their children in order to make their children eligible for need-based college aid, there was an online epidemic of jaws dropping.

Also, some minds were blown

My jaw did not drop. My mind is intact. These are the parts where I am from, and I am well-familiar with the lengths to which upper-middle and upper-upper-middle class parents of the northern Chicago suburbs will go to secure advantages for their progeny. 

In my day, when college costs were considerably more reasonable, the focus was on academic achievement and elite admissions, and I saw the jockeying take many different forms, including one (very capable) classmate who essentially cheated in every single high school class with their parents’ knowledge and (on occasion) willingness to provide cover in the case of them getting caught. 

Sixteen years ago, my high school (Glenbrook North in Northbrook, IL) was the locus of the great Powder Puff Football Massacre, in which a group of senior girls dispensed with the fiction of an actual flag football game and instead subjected the juniors to a hazing ritual that included smearing the victims with excrement and beating them with baseball bats. 

At the time of the incident parents of the perpetrators quickly cast themselves as the victims. “My daughter made a stupid mistake,” said one mother. “Our family has been wrung through the wringer. Our family is in turmoil right now.”

Another perpetrator’s lawyer said, “We’re talking about good kids who got caught up in a stupid, stupid situation. She’s devastated, absolutely devastated. She’s got her whole life ahead of her. She cries constantly. Nobody expected it to get out of hand like this.”

The assaults were clearly pre-meditated, buckets of offal and shit don’t just appear on scene as if by magic. The students lawyered up, wrists were slapped, and judging from some LinkedIn lookups, none of the perpetrators’ lives appear to have been ruined.[2]

This is what privilege looks like in America among those who are plenty rich, but not at the level of F-U wealthy. 

Given my personal experience and knowledge of the place, the news that parents are using the courts to sever their children from their household income in order to qualify for aid does not surprise. I understood the lie of the meritocracy from a young age, witnessing the ways my born-on-third-base peers (well, their parents) used their advantages to secure opportunity denied to others without the same fortune of birth. That this has extended into the realm of college costs makes perfect sense. It is logical, inevitable, therefore not shocking. 

The Wall St. Journal uses one family to illustrate the motives behind the scheme. Household income over $250,000 a year, but savings have been tapped out by spending $600,000 on the educations of their other children. They live in a $1.2 million home, but have no equity to access for a loan.

Transferring their daughter’s guardianship to the mother’s business partner was a literal paper transaction and suddenly the daughter is Pell eligible. She attends a “private college on the West Coast which costs $65,000 in annual tuition,” covered by $27,000 for a merit scholarship, $20,000 in “need-based aid, including a Federal Pell grant,” and $18,000 from grandma and grandpa.

The scheme is likely not illegal, though it is certainly unethical, and for those who pulled it when enrolling in college in Illinois, where a first-come, first-served need-based scholarship fund ran dry well short of servicing all of those eligible, it likely took money away from students with significantly greater need. When the self-perceived rights of the privileged (such as access to a college education) are threatened, those with less or no privilege are readily sacrificed, and the privileged folks don’t lose an ounce of sleep over it because one’s highest calling is to provide for one’s children.

I certainly think it’s fair to take some time out and go ahead and hate these players, but I’m far more interested in what this says about the nature of the game.

What we are looking at is the inevitable consequence of rising college costs and a cobbled together financial aid system that simply makes no sense. Almost three years ago Sara Goldrick-Rab wrote of the bind that our financial aid structure puts students in when it works under the assumption that parents are helping children pay for school. Mostly this punishes lower income students or students who may have a deadbeat parent who is supposed to be paying child support but fails in that responsibility. 

But once a process is established, it is only a matter of time before the well-resourced will use it to their own advantage. 

The story reminded me of a recent article in the New York Times where they asked “middle class” people about what they wanted politicians to know. The twist is that by income these people are at least in the top 15% of households, and yet in today’s world, they find themselves broke as they attempt to live middle class lifestyles as defined by class markers and socio-economic opportunity such as home ownership, ability to vacation, pay for children’s activities, etc…

Even though they are relatively high income, they fall into the category of ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) families whose incomes say they should be rich, but don’t have sufficient funds to send their kids to college while keeping them free of the burden of loans. 

By all means feel free to judge these folks harshly for not saving more money or refusing to adjust their expectations to their financial resources – two years of community college before transferring to a statue university – but also recognize that if these rich people are having trouble, many more not rich people are not only having trouble, they are shut out entirely.

In answering why she doesn’t support free college proposals like that put forward by Elizabeth Warren, Senator and presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar said, “I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids.”

Here is the thing, though. As this story shows, the parents that have the resources, and more importantly the cultural savvy, will figure out how to get their kids’ college paid for. The system as is will alwaysbenefit those with more resources, no matter how many checks and rules we put in place. In this case, the better resourced are benefitted by taking money meant for those with more need.

We could introduce more guardrails, but every additional hoop also introduces costs and inefficiencies into the system that would otherwise be unnecessary. 

Kamala Harris’ approach, which will forgive a certain amount of loans if borrowers establish and run businesses in low-income areas while standing on one foot and whistling the Star Spangled Banner introduces even greater inefficiency and opportunities for manipulation. 

We’re at an inflection point. Either we are going to decide that post-secondary public education is a public good to be paid for with public money and provided to the public at little or no cost, or we are going to continue down the current road of post-secondary education as a private good, where really rich people can afford college and the less rich people will avail themselves of the public money that’s supposed to go to the more deserving.[3]

There is no door number three.

Both choices, public good/free college, and private good/high tuition, are going to cost a lot of money. But it’s the private good/high tuition model that happens to carry significant inefficiency and waste as part of its model, while also incentivizing perverse behaviors by institutions through privileging prestige and competition as ways to draw additional funding to make up for the lack of public support. 

When the money it costs to educate students is aggregated, it is almost certainly less expensive to run public post-secondary education as a public good. Yes, it will mean higher taxes (mostly for the very wealthy). Yes, it will have potentially negative effects on non-elite private institutions. Yes, those of us who do not have college-age family members or existing student debt will not directly benefit.

Yes, it seems like it’s providing something for free to some people who could otherwise pay for it, but as we’ve seen, fewer and fewer people can afford to pay for college. 

Rich people are already making out like bandits supping at the public trough. Why not level the field so everyone else can get a turn?

Public good that’s accessible to all who deserve it regardless of income, or private good reserved for the wealthiest and those most able to game the system: Which sounds like a better future?


[1]First from ProPublica, with juicy details following from the Wall Street Journal.

[2]Unless attending University of Chicago law school and becoming a practicing attorney, or having a “classic, romantic wedding” at Chicago’s Standard Club, or being a teacher, or real estate agent (among many other things) is a ruined life.

[3]Every time someone complains about poor people somehow manipulating the public benefit system to receive benefits they don’t deserve, start doing a little math and tell me which group seems to be doing more of this “cheating”?

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