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Amid scrutiny, some parents back off giving up custody to help their kids get college aid

They say higher ed costs are exorbitant and that what they did is legal. A judge who’d OKed nine guardianship transfers questions another, saying, ‘It doesn’t sound right to me. It just doesn’t.’

A Northbrook woman and her high school daughter who turned to the college planning company Destination College and considered having guardianship of the girl be turned over to an aunt to help get more college financial aid.
A Northbrook woman and her high school daughter who turned to the college planning company Destination College and considered having guardianship of the girl be turned over to an aunt to help get more college financial aid.
Max Herman / ProPublica Illinois

Amid government scrutiny and a public backlash, more than a half dozen suburban Chicago families who had gone to court to give up guardianship so their college-bound teenagers would qualify for financial aid they wouldn’t otherwise receive are now letting their cases lapse.

Some of them say the real issue isn’t that they tried to take advantage of a legal loophole but that the cost of higher education is exorbitant.

“A lot of families are afraid to say what they are thinking,” said one mother who decided not to pursue her son’s case. “They have OK incomes. But having a good income does not make you able to pay for college. I would have to not drink or eat to pay for my two boys.”

Like other parents, she agreed to speak on the condition of not being named.

A Northbrook mother said she had been considering guardianship but thinks it’s no longer an option.

“I said, ‘Is that off the table?’” she said she asked the college consultant at the center of the guardianship scandal. “She goes, ‘I don’t think … any judge in Illinois would sign off on anything.’”

That’s in the wake of a ProPublica Illinois report last month that almost four dozen families from affluent Lake County suburbs had gone to court to turn over guardianship of their children to a relative or friend, typically a few months before their kids turned 18. The teenagers then could declare themselves financially independent and apply for need-based financial aid without their parents’ income being taken into account.

ProPublica Illinois has since identified about a dozen more families in Cook, McHenry and Will counties who filed similar guardianship petitions since 2017. Among them is the family of a 17-year-old in Long Grove. Four days after a Lake County judge denied their petition last month, they refiled the case, naming a different guardian, in McHenry County, saying it’s in their son’s best interest to “obtain independent student status in order to qualify for financial aid necessary for the minor to attend a state college” and eventually become a doctor.

But the McHenry County judge, Michael Chmiel — who approved at least nine other guardianship petitions for college-bound students — questioned the move after learning the parents would keep providing financial support.

“So it’s a charade?” Chmiel asked attorney Nina Neuber of the Kabbe Law Group in Naperville, which has handled about half of the 59 petitions identified by ProPublica Illinois.

“No, your honor. It is not a charade,” Neuber replied, according to a transcript of the July 16 hearing.

Judge Michael Chmiel.
Judge Michael Chmiel: “It doesn’t sound right to me. It just doesn’t.”
McHenry County

Chmiel was skeptical.

“I’m challenged by this practice of a parent giving up parental rights for no reason other than an alleged attempt to qualify the kid somehow for financial aid, but yet the parent is still providing financial aid,” the judge said. “It doesn’t sound right to me. It just doesn’t.”

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s director of undergraduate admissions called the guardianships a “scam.” Federal and state officials have opened investigations into “possible student aid fraud.” The U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general has recommended modifying financial aid forms so students in guardianships who get medical and financial support from their parents don’t qualify as independent. Illinois lawmakers have discussed reforms.

The families involved live in affluent suburbs including Lake Forest, Libertyville and Deerfield. The parents are lawyers, doctors, technology specialists, entrepreneurs, teachers and real estate agents. Some have declared bankruptcy in recent years.

Many appear to have been directed to guardianships by the same college consultant, Lora Georgieva, a Bulgarian immigrant who has worked in the industry for close to a decade and in 2013 launched Destination College, state records show. Her website — which includes an image of a graduation cap with $100 bills spilling from it — describes some of her services as “strategies to lower tuition expenses.”

Georgieva said she has done nothing illegal or unethical and has worked to help middle-income families who would struggle to send their children to college.

She said her clients make $35,000 to $180,000 a year, and some are still paying off their own student loans. Many have more than one child, she said. Court records show six of the families involved had filed petitions for siblings.

Two families said they paid Georgieva $4,500 to $5,000. Several, including one who didn’t go through with a guardianship change, said they signed nondisclosure agreements.

Georgieva said the agreement is to protect her methods of helping students and families find the right college, write admissions essays and explore financial strategies including guardianship.

Not all clients pursue that option, she said, and “nobody was pressured into using it,” Georgieva said.

“Some people, out of being desperate, they acknowledged the fact that they need it,” she said. “Some people said, ‘We have enough money to pay for college. We don’t need that or don’t feel comfortable with it.’”

Georgieva said she will stop recommending guardianship even though she has gotten calls from families who are now interested. “The news that broke, you guys opened the eyes of a lot of families of what they can do,” she said.

Before providing information about guardianships, Georgieva said she spoke with a representative from the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student aid office and lawyers who are clients and “confirmed this is a valid legal approach.”

Education Department officials said they were unaware of any conversation with Georgieva about guardianship, that laws governing “dependency status were created to help students who legitimately need assistance to attend college” and “those who break the rules should be held accountable.”

Federal financial aid isn’t limited. But state grants in Illinois that are need-based are first-come, first-served. About 82,000 students qualified last year but didn’t get state money because it ran out.

Several parents said guardianship was one of many strategies Georgeiva presented.

“It was introduced as a program that helps people like us,” said a mother who successfully petitioned last year to transfer guardianship of her daughter to a friend. “We weren’t looking at it as something unethical.”

She said she and her husband work, and “by no means do we live in a lavish home.”

Another parent, from a wealthy Lake County community, said she hired Georgieva after interviewing several college consultants.

“I did graduate from college, and so did my husband,” she said. “But the whole process changes every year. Why not get the best results? My kids are doing very good in school. I want them to do the best.”

She said Georgieva reviewed her son’s college application essays and recommended ways to become an attractive candidate, like volunteering.

The woman said she and her husband — who let their guardianship petition lapse following the news reports — together make more than $200,000 a year and have two teenage sons.

“Why should the kids of people who work hard and are busy every day and have no time to see their kids, why are their kids being punished?” she said. “They will have to take huge loans and not be able to pay.”

She said her sons want to become doctors and that guardianship might have helped them avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.

“I don’t want to be discouraging them, but I’m looking at this and thinking, ‘I have to support them all of their life?’” the mother said.

She said she worries her sons will get “stuck doing something they don’t like,” maybe attending community college and working in fast food.

“I thought they encouraged kids in school to do what they have a passion for,” she said. “Do we have to kill a passion in our kids?”

A Northbrook mother who dropped the idea of giving up guardianship of her daughter displays some of the college brochures she has received.
A Northbrook mother who dropped the idea of giving up guardianship of her daughter displays some of the college brochures she has received.
Max Herman / ProPublica Illinois

The Northbrook mother said “something resonated” while meeting with Georgieva in spring 2018. The family had attended free college-planning sessions, but she said no one else spoke as plainly as Georgieva about the cost of college.

The woman, who spoke with reporters on Georgieva’s recommendation, said she and her husband lost their jobs, went through their emergency fund, borrowed and tapped into their retirement and children’s college savings.

She said she eventually found work, but her husband had a stroke and is in a nursing home, and she sold their house and moved to a rental property with her children. When she met Georgieva, her oldest son was in community college and her daughter was a high school sophomore.

She said Georgieva charged about $4,500 for her full package of services, letting her pay in installments, helping identify career interests, telling her daughter to focus on improving her ACT scores and encouraged her to take an academic enrichment program.

The mother said she mentioned possibly giving up guardianship, perhaps to the girl’s aunt, who’d been supportive during the family’s difficulties.

“I’m, like, ‘Oh, my God … I’m not emancipating my child,’” she said was her initial reaction. “I had, like, a million questions.”

Georgieva explained, and she warmed to the idea. If her daughter was considered financially independent, then the salary from the mother’s marketing job — more than $100,000 a year, she said — wouldn’t count.

“Because of how the system is structured, they’re telling me I make too much money,” she said. “But I don’t have $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 sitting” around.

Before deciding whether to pursue guardianship, the scandal made national news, and she was told her Plan A was off the table. Now, she said, the family is scrambling to figure out how to pay for college.

Melissa Sanchez and Jodi S. Cohen report for ProPublica Illinois.