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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. File Photo.
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EDITORIAL: Pity the poor rich. We expect them to pay their kids’ way through college

Dozens of wealthy suburban Chicago parents have given up legal custody of their children just so they can qualify for financial aid. We need to close that loophole.

We already knew that wealthy people will pull any string and pay big money to get their children into elite colleges. Dozens of rich moms and dads, including celebrities, were hit with federal criminal charges earlier this year for doing so.

Now we know the well-to-do will also go to bizarre lengths to avoid paying their kids’ tuition.

Dozens of wealthy suburban Chicago parents — including doctors, lawyers and an associate school superintendent — have actually given up legal custody of their children so they can qualify for financial aid they otherwise would not be entitled to, according to a new ProPublica Illinois investigation.

Many of these kids were high-achieving scholars, athletes and musicians. They were admitted to good schools, such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Wisconsin.

Their folks just didn’t want to pay.

The scheme works like this: The parents turn over legal guardianship of their high school-aged child to a willing relative or friend. Once the teen is under the guardianship of someone other than a parent, he or she can declare that they are financially independent and rely entirely on their own limited income. This makes it possible for them to qualify for need-based grants and other aid.

It’s all legal. And it’s a scam, by any common-sense standard of ethics. Every dollar in grant money that goes to a student who is not really financially eligible is one less dollar for a student who might not go to college otherwise.

A spokesperson for Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul told us the office “has concerns” about the matter and plans to investigate further. Terrific.

And once the investigation is completed, state officials should close the legal loopholes.

ProPublica uncovered more than 40 guardianship cases in Lake County that look fishy, all filed between January 2018 and June 2019, and is investigating similar cases in other counties.

We can’t help but think of all the honest young people who are struggling to pay back five-figure college loans. And their equally honest parents, who scrimped and saved to help.

Too bad for them, we guess, that they didn’t hire a lawyer to game the system. And too bad for them, we suppose, that they didn’t hire a ”college consultant” who could provide “income and asset-shifting strategies” to do an end-run around an honest accounting of family assets.

It’s no secret that the astronomical cost of a college education, an essential ticket to a decent-paying job and middle-class life, puts a huge burden on young people and their families. That’s why one in four Americans owe student loan debt, a third of borrowers are behind in payments or defaulting, and loan interest rates have soared to 7%.

Many borrowers will be paying off loans until they retire, and beyond.

The argument in defense of the scamming parents is that they were up against it, too, in a way, and just trying to do best by their kids. As one lawyer said about the families she represented, they were too wealthy for financial aid, but too poor to afford college outright.

If that’s the case, step up and make the argument openly. None of the parents contacted by ProPublica reporters Jodi S. Cohen and Melissa Sanchez would talk about it. Some just hung up the phone.

No matter. The high cost of college is no excuse for trickery. We applaud Judge Joseph Salvi, who saw through the scam in one case and denied a legal guardianship — for a high school student still living with his parents in Long Grove.

Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, put it bluntly to ProPublica: “It’s not like these families are close or on the tipping point” of qualifying for financial aid.

“If it is legal,” Borst asked, “at what point is it wrong?”

That’s easy: Right now.

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