Months ago, Americans expressed shock and disgust over “Operation Varsity Blues,” the scandal in which celebrities and other wealthy parents bribed and cheated to get their kids admission or scholarships at prominent colleges and universities.

The disgust is understandable. But the shock? That some rich parents will stop at nothing to push their kids to the head of the line? And that “exclusive” schools aren’t to some degree accomplices by promoting their high-tuition exclusivity?

Even before all the “Varsity Blues” punishment is meted out — the bribe-taking Stanford rowing coach got the wrist slap of one day behind bars and six months of home confinement — the shock-and-disgust line is forming again.

The Illinois newsroom of ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism organization, the other day detailed the underhanded but possibly legal maneuvers wealthy parents are pulling to get their college-bound kids a prime place at the financial aid trough.

Basically, the scheme works like this: Parents “disown” their kids by giving guardianship to a less-well-off acquaintance or relative. The suddenly “lower-income” young person thus becomes eligible for more college financial aid.

And Mom and Dad don’t need to dip into their bloated bank accounts.

Looking at court records in just one well-to-do county in the Chicago suburbs, ProPublica found dozens of these filings. Two particular law firms handled all but one of those guardianship applications. That one filing? It was made for the family of a prominent member of one of those original two firms.

We can’t say it better than Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

“It’s a scam.”

Added Borst, “Wealthy families are manipulating the financial aid process to be eligible for financial aid they would not be otherwise eligible for. They are taking away opportunities from families that really need it.”

Apparently, the trick is to make false claims to the courts, stating, for example, “The Guardian can provide educational and financial support and opportunities to the minor that her parents could not otherwise provide.”

In its report (, ProPublica notes that Illinois law does not specify circumstances in which a court could deny a guardianship application. Even if a parent is able to care for the child, the journalists found, the court can approve the guardianship if the parents voluntarily relinquish custody of the child.

It would be naïve to think that the only cases of families gaming the system are in Lake County, Ill., where ProPublica happened to dig into court records. Indeed, the journalists quoted a lawyer who has filed on behalf of families in the counties of Kane, Will, DuPage, Cook and McHenry. Will anyone be surprised to find it’s also happening elsewhere in the state and even the nation?

The University of Illinois is already revoking financial aid in some of these cases and looking into others. Other schools and scholarship organizations should do likewise. Prosecutors should investigate the apparent false claims in legal filings. And lawmakers should close this cheaters’ loophole.

Meanwhile, those of us who are shocked and disgusted by this sorry episode would be wise to file it under, “Why Journalism Still Matters.”

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