How We Got the Story About Parents Transferring Guardianship of Their Kids to Win Financial Aid They Wouldn’t Otherwise Qualify For

Jodi Cohen:

I’ve covered higher education for many years and was part of a team that revealed the University of Illinois admissions clout scandal in which students from politically connected families got preference over more-qualified applicants. This latest tip was in my wheelhouse. I got to work.

First, I needed to find the records of these guardianship transfers, which the tipster told me had taken place in Lake County, a largely wealthy area north of Chicago. So I called up the Lake County courthouse and a clerk said, “Sure, come on up.”

The case records looked like medical files: long, long rows of folders organized by date. I asked if I could start with the most recent ones, and workers at the clerk’s office patiently pulled down stacks of files. I flipped past the estate cases and stopped at the folders labeled “minors person.” I finished one stack of files, gave it back and got the next batch. This went on all day.

Most of the records dealt with families in desperate situations who needed someone else to care for their children. Those records were primarily handwritten. Then I started seeing ones filled out by lawyers — typewritten — many of which had language about the guardianship changes being for educational and financial opportunities. They just stood out.

By the end of that day, I had gotten through maybe 800 files. My colleague Melissa Sanchez joined me the next day. In total, we looked through 1,800 cases from 2018 and 2019 in about 13 hours (plus 1,200 cases from 2017). We identified about four dozen we wanted to follow up on from the past 18 months.

We called the University of Illinois, the state’s flagship public university and the school of choice for many suburban students. We had learned through social media that some of the teens involved in the guardianship changes were U. of I. students or soon-to-be students. U. of I.’s admissions director said that he was aware of the situation, which he called a “scam,” and that he was trying to combat it.