Probe: Did dozens of rich students ‘game the system’ to get free Missouri tuition?

Missouri’s public universities are investigating dozens of students whose affluent families may have duped the U.S. Department of Education and the schools into paying their college tuition.

And in the aftermath of the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal — Operation Varsity Blues — in which rich celebrities face jail time for buying their kids’ entry at top colleges — officials are sensitive to schemes that skirt the rules and take money from students who really need it.

Students are suspected of having parents — doctors, educators and lawyers — who gave up guardianship before high school graduation so the students could file for college financial aid as an independent child. With the parents’ finances out of the picture, the students could claim financial hardship and qualify for scholarships meant for low-income applicants.

Missouri’s investigations were launched after a Propublica report found University of Illinois students, many from affluent Chicago suburbs, had used that scheme to qualify for tuition aid.

It’s not against the law. “But it is a misrepresentation,” said Christian Basi, a spokesman for the University of Missouri.

Officials locally and nationally want it to stop.

“The laws and regulations governing dependency status were created to help students who legitimately need assistance to attend college,” said Liz Hill, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. “Those who break the rules should be held accountable, and the Department is committed to assessing what changes can be made — either independently or in concert with Congress —to protect taxpayers from those who seek to game the system for their own financial gain.” The department is asking more questions now on federal financial aid applications to block cheating.

So far, MU has flagged fewer than 10 such students.

Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla has identified 22 students who claimed no parental guardianship on their FAFSA forms to attend the highly selective college, considered the state’s top public engineering school. Most of those students are from Missouri; others are from Illinois, Georgia, Texas and Massachusetts.

Officials at the University of Missouri-Kansas City are reviewing financial aid applications for possible infringements. At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, officials say they have not found any students who skirted the rules.

University of Missouri System officials said the campuses could not name students, parents or attorneys, citing federal laws protecting student privacy.

Basi said MU financial aid officials are “looking for some key elements” of the students’ guardianship statements attached to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. “We are looking for patterns.”

Those include: Did the students change guardianship a year or two before high school graduation? Did they come from an affluent area? Did they change guardianship for no other reason than to change financial status?

Of the more than 17 million students at public and private colleges in the country, less than 1% change guardianship on their financial aid applications.

MU officials said hundreds of students change guardianship for varying reasons. In the investigation the university has found several cases in which guardianship court papers list questionable reasons.

“We are talking to the students, contacting the guardian and looking at the public court documents,” Basi said. He said the university recognizes many of those guardianship changes are for legitimate reasons.

“That is why we are investigating,” he said. “We don’t want to challenge any aid for any student who deserves it.”

In the University of Illinois case Propublica investigated, college officials, tipped off by high school guidance counselors, noticed a pattern of students coming from certain affluent Chicago suburbs with recent guardianship transfers and similar language in their applications. That university identified 14 cases over the last year.

Leroy Wade, Missouri’s deputy commissioner of education, said he would not be surprised if this was happening at other Missouri public universities. “Becoming an emancipated individual in Missouri I don’t think is a tremendously onerous process.” The practice, he said, “is not illegal but it is certainly unethical.”

With a limited pool of financial aid, the more students who qualify, the less money each student can get, he said.

Wade said the state education department is going to wait for University of Missouri to finish its investigation to see whether it is dealing with only an isolated few cases. He is leaning toward just telling universities to “be more vigilant and watch out for this kind of thing.”

Currently, undergraduate tuition alone for a Missouri resident to attend MU is $9,518 a year. Out-of-state students pay $25,892.

MU has spent the last two years developing programs to reduce the costs of books, food and housing. The university developed scholarship programs to help students who have the academics but not the money, to “break down financial barriers so they are able to attend a college or university they qualify for but otherwise would not be able to afford,” Basi said.

Last school year MU paid out more than $10 million in scholarships to help Pell Grant eligible students cover tuition or the full cost of attending the Columbia campus.

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.