In wake of financial aid flap, Springfield eyes clampdown

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Illinois lawmakers are considering options to address recent revelations that a college consultant and lawyers advised parents that they could change their childrens’ guardianship status in an effort to win more financial aid.

Specifically, legislators are reviewing the possibility of implementing licensing requirements for independent college consultants, and may also consider law changes that would address guardianship transfer, said Andrew Borst, director of undergraduate admissions for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Those possible policy changes will be discussed at a joint hearing in Chicago tomorrow of the Illinois House appropriations and higher education committees, he said.

That hearing follows reports last week by ProPublica and the Wall Street Journal that dozens of parents in Lake County were found to have engaged in the legal guardianship changes ahead of their children declaring themselves financially independent and using that status as the basis for receiving need-based financial aid. The news resulted in recriminations and scrutiny from state and federal officials as well as university officials despite the strategy apparently being legal.

Lora Georgieva, founder of Destination College, told the Chicago Tribune last week that she had researched the guardianship option and shared that information with clients but hadn’t participated in any legal proceedings on that front. “I just thought this might be a way—not to fully fund college, not to make the rich people richer—but to help primarily the middle class who are working so hard and cannot send their kids to college,” she told the paper. She didn’t return calls seeking additional comment.

The House has posted a notice saying the hearing tomorrow will consider “guardianship and financial aid.” Leaders of the higher education and appropriation committees weren’t immediately available for comment.

Borst said the university would be an advocate for legislation that would implement licensing requirements for the college consulting industry. He expressed amazement that barbers get more oversight in Illinois than the independent college consultants, noting that barbers need to satisfy certain training requirements and apply for a license to operate, while college consultants don’t have to meet any requirements.

While he has worked with reputable people in the industry, Borst said he’s also heard stories about consultants who may not have a client’s best interest in mind. “The independent counselor area is currently unregulated across the nation,” he noted.

If Illinois legislators decide to pursue legislative changes they’ll be following the lead of California lawmakers who were also pressed to respond to a college consultant scandal in that state earlier this year. In that incident, a college consultant, William ‘Rick’ Springer, and others were charged by federal prosecutors with allegedly engaging in a scheme to win admissions for students to elite schools through bribes, cheating on exams and fabricated student credentials. The California lawmakers have proposed a state registration process for college consultants who earn $5,000 or more annually for their work.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a public university that’s the biggest in the state, is reviewing 14 instances of guardianship transfers related to financial aid applications that it found suspect, Borst said.

Legislators could try to change the parameters for guardianship as well, but that could be trickier. Amendments to laws meant to protect children could have unforeseen consequences. Borst voiced caution about putting legal barriers in front of students who may need guardianship changes “for health and safety.”


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