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House panels to hear about guardianship financial aid controversy

Hearing to feature higher ed officials; unclear if lawyers, parents will attend

Matthew Apgar file photo
Students walk through campus outside of Swen Parson Hall on May 4, 2017 at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
Matthew Apgar file photo Students walk through campus outside of Swen Parson Hall on May 4, 2017 at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

SPRINGFIELD – Two Illinois House committees will hold a joint hearing Thursday in Chicago on the subject of wealthy parents who put their teenage children into guardianship in order to qualify for financial aid. It remains to be seen whether any of the attorneys or parents involved in that practice will show up to testify.

But even if they don’t, Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, who chairs the House committee that deals with funding higher education, said he hopes the hearing itself will deter other parents from trying it in the future.

“Bringing awareness to the issue should deter it in a big way,” Ford said Wednesday.

The issue came to light in a story published July 29 by the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica Illinois.

Reporters had found dozens of cases of parents in wealthy Chicago suburbs of Lake County who had petitioned a court to place their children in the custody of guardians – often a family friend or relative – so their children could declare themselves financially independent and thereby qualify for student financial aid, including grants from the state’s Monetary Award Program, or MAP grants.

Ford said he and other lawmakers had consulted with attorneys who advised them there was nothing illegal about the practice. But he said it raises a number of “moral” issues because the MAP program has limited funding available, and typically as many as 80,000 applicants per year are denied grants because there is not enough funding to go around.

“I think the families may not understand the harm that they’re doing,” Ford said. “I don’t know if they morally knew that they were robbing another student of the opportunity to go to college.”

Ford’s committee will meet jointly with the House Higher Education Committee in a hearing set to begin at 10 a.m. in the Michael A. Bilandic Building in Chicago.

According to an agenda that Ford provided, the hearing will involve four panels representing the University of Illinois, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, other public universities and thePartnership for College Completion, an organization that advocates for policies to help students in the Chicago area complete college.

Ford said the committees had considered issuing subpoenas for representatives from law firms involved in the guardianship arrangements, as well as parents who had taken advantage of the process. But he said that process would have taken considerable time, so the committees instead invited those people to testify. As of Wednesday afternoon, he said, none of them had said they would attend.

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