The Ethics of the Emancipation Loophole

Another day, another scandal.


The world of college admissions is no stranger to corruption (ahem, Operation Varsity Blues, looking at you…), but I was surprised this week when I stumbled across a few articles about wealthy parents in Illinois who were caught emancipating their children to game the financial aid system.

Emancipation is such a fancy word. What does that even mean?

Well, say you are under 18 years old and are looking to pay for college through means other than your parents’ pocket book. You want a college to only look at your personal income, not that of your parents. This is nearly impossible, as in the federal financial aid system, you are dependent on your parents regardless of whether they are willing to pay for your college costs or not.

To get around such a requirement, many wealthy parents in the state of Illinois (and across the country, no doubt) have opted to essentially hand over legal guardianship of their children to another individual during their junior or senior year of high school so that the FAFSA has no choice but to ignore their financial situation.

Sounds slimy, right?

Well technically, it’s legal. Parents emancipate their children for a number of reasons, but most often it’s because they are truly no longer in a position to care for their children. Perhaps it’s homelessness, incarceration, deportation… the list goes on. And while one could lump “I want more financial aid” into the mix, it is vehemently frowned upon.

The parents in this story were mostly wealthy—superintendents, lawyers, doctors, and so forth. So when a student was invited to attend a program for low-income students at the University of Illinois, it raised a red flag with that student’s high school guidance counselor who, of course, knew better.

Turns out, that student had been emancipated and had had their legal guardianship passed over to a friend, so the FAFSA was not able to take into consideration the finances of that student’s well-off parents.

In fact, there were dozens of similar cases reported in this suburban Illinois
community, which goes to show that it’s a growing trend that parents are thinking they can get away with so as not to have to foot the tuition bill.

I don’t think I have to spell it out for you all that this is just a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. It’s deceitful, in that you are suggesting to the court system that your parents are incapable of properly caring for you. You may also be taking away valuable aid that another student might deeply rely on in order to attend college.

So before you or your parents consider officially signing that document ceasing their rights over you, think about how it could be viewed in the eyes of an admissions or financial aid officer who has the fate of your application and financial aid package in their hands.

Until next time,

Molly Monet – College Dream Builder Consultant

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