Financial aid scams reflect education access disparities

Just as buzz about the college admission bribery scheme earlier this year was beginning to die down, a new instance of middle class families gaming the higher education system came to light in Illinois: The U.S. Department of Education is investigating a financial aid loophole in which parents allegedly disowned their kids to give them a better chance at receiving aid. 

At the core of this scandal, wealthier families are abusing financial aid funding and keeping low-income students from the funds they need to attend college or stay out of debt. 

Emerging last month from investigations into admissions at Midwestern universities, college counselor Lora Georgieva appears to be taking the full spotlight for helming this strategy. She discovered the lucrative business opportunity when noticing middle class families stressed over how to pay tuition for their kids. Georgieva was able to pinpoint a profitable, cost-effective loophole: Disown one’s child, appoint a family member or friend as a guardian in their junior or senior year of high school, establish them as an independent to remove large familial assets and reap the benefits of grant money and merit scholarships aimed at supporting low income students who don’t have enough money to afford college.

This financial aid ploy reflects another exploitation of the college admissions system that will continue to extend the gap between rich and poor. Students across the nation have struggled with rising tuition prices that unfairly harm low-income students who are already at a disadvantage when applying to and paying for college. Many students need financial support to be able to attend college, and some even forfeit going to college if they’re unable to pay. 

At USC, for example, nearly two-thirds of students receive some form of financial assistance. Many struggle to make ends meet and require large grants, scholarships, loans and work-study jobs to attend. 

This process, while selfish and cruel, is legal. Families just need to petition a probate judge to disown their kid, and, once accepted, they’re free to claim benefits meant for families making incomes equivalent to minimum wage. 

Still, this tactic is incredibly immoral. While they might intend only to benefit their own children, by doing this, families are harming students who have far greater financial concern going into college. Higher education is increasingly seen as a necessity for individuals in modern society, and this new financial aid loophole — along with the college admission bribery scandal — demonstrate that families have become willing to do anything to manipulate the education system.

The current heightened awareness of backdoors in college access and aid demands stricter guidelines to prevent families from manipulating the system. The ability to disown one’s child is simply too easy, and research shows that it’s entirely possible to pull off, no matter the person’s economic class. New language in the Federal Student Aid Handbook can nullify this strategy by stating that a student is still considered dependent if they have another legal guardian but still receive financial and medical support from their parents.

Even though stricter standards need to be employed, the entire issue reveals a dangerous undertone of the increasing barriers to entry for higher education due to high costs. 

Most Americans are finding it difficult to pay for rising tuition rates, and the upward trend is not stopping anytime soon — USC’s undergraduate tuition increased by 3.5% just this year. Both the college admissions scheme and the financial aid loophole are symptoms of a broken higher education system in the United States, but no family should be able to manipulate that system at the expense of those that are struggling.