This article was produced by ProPublica Illinois, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism.\u00a0 Dozens of suburban Chicago families, perhaps many more, have been exploiting a legal loophole to win their children need-based college financial aid and scholarships they would not otherwise receive, court records and interviews show. Coming months after the national \u201cVarsity Blues\u201d college admissions scandal, this tactic also appears to involve families attempting to gain an advantage in an increasingly competitive and expensive college admissions system. Parents are giving up legal guardianship of their children during their junior or senior year in high school to someone else \u2014 a friend, aunt, cousin or grandparent. The guardianship status then allows the students to declare themselves financially independent of their families so they can qualify for federal, state and university aid, a ProPublica Illinois investigation found. \u201cIt\u2019s a scam,\u201d said Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. \u201cWealthy 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.\u201d While ProPublica Illinois uncovered this practice in north suburban Lake County, where almost four dozen such guardianships were filed in the past 18 months, similar petitions have been filed in at least five other counties and the practice may be happening throughout the country. ProPublica Illinois is still investigating. Borst said he first became suspicious when a high school counselor from an affluent Chicago suburb called him about a year ago to ask why a particular student had been invited to an orientation program for low-income students. Borst checked the student\u2019s financial aid application and saw she had obtained a legal guardian, making her eligible to qualify for financial aid independently. The University of Illinois has since identified 14 applicants who did the same: three who just completed their freshman year and 11 who plan to enroll this fall, Borst said. ProPublica Illinois found more than 40 guardianship cases fitting this profile filed between January 2018 and June 2019 in the Chicago suburbs of Lake County alone. The parents involved in these cases include lawyers, a doctor and an assistant schools superintendent, as well as insurance and real estate agents. A number of the children are high-achieving scholars, athletes and musicians who attend or have been accepted to a range of universities, from large public institutions, including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Missouri and Indiana University, to smaller private colleges. ProPublica Illinois reached parents or guardians in 15 of these cases and none agreed to speak on the record. Some hung up, others declined to comment and some demanded anonymity. Borst said the university told the three students midway through last school year that their university-based financial aid would be reduced. \u201cWe didn\u2019t hear any complaint, and that is also a big red flag,\u201d Borst said. \u201cIf they were needy, they would have come in to talk with us.\u201d The university now asks more questions of students who have recently entered into a guardianship, including whether they have contact with their parents, who they live with and who pays for their health insurance and cellphone bill. The questions have deterred some families from continuing to seek university aid, Borst said. While the university has discretion over offering institutional aid, it is obligated to distribute the federal and state grants for needy students, known as the Pell Grant and the state Monetary Award Program, or MAP grant in Illinois, Borst said. Combined, they can total about $11,000 a year. He said the university has alerted the U.S. Department of Education and officials at the Illinois agency that administers state financial aid, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. An ISAC spokeswoman said the agency has not yet been told about a specific case, but that it would alert the state attorney general and the U.S. Department of Education if necessary. A U.S. Department of Education spokesman said he could neither confirm nor deny current or potential investigations. In Illinois last year, about 82,000 students who were eligible for the MAP grant, up to about $5,000, did not receive it because there wasn\u2019t enough money. The grant is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. When filling out the application for financial aid, called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, students have to prove formal separation from their parents to qualify as an independent. One of the few ways to do that is through a legal guardianship change. Students cannot just declare financial independence \u2014 even in cases where parents are able to pay but refuse to do so, Borst said. According to the U.S. Department of Education website, \u201ca student in legal guardianship does not need to report parent information on the FAFSA form because he or she is considered an independent student.\u201d Independent students are evaluated for financial aid based on their own income and resources and not that of their parents. \u201cIt\u2019s not like these families are close or on the tipping point\u201d of being eligible for the aid, Borst said. \u201cI don\u2019t know how big this is, but I hope we can nip this in the bud now. \u2026 If it is legal, at what point is it wrong?\u201d The process starts in the courthouse. Nearly all the cases identified by ProPublica Illinois were handled by one of two law firms: The Rogers Law Group in Deerfield, which handled most of them, and the Kabbe Law Group in Naperville. The only case filed by a different firm involved the family of Rick Rogers, of the Rogers Law Group. The petitions filed by Rogers, whose firm specializes in real estate, are very similar, with language saying the guardianship would be in the minors\u2019 \u201cbest interest\u201d and typically citing educational reasons. Many, for example, say: \u201cThe Guardian can provide educational and financial support and opportunities to the minor that her parents could not otherwise provide.\u201d Reached by phone, Rogers declined several times to comment about the families he represented, the process or why he sought a legal guardian for his son. The Illinois Probate Act, the law that governs guardianship, does not specify circumstances in which guardianship should be denied. According to Illinois law, a court can appoint a guardian if the parents consent, the minor agrees and the court determines it is in the minor\u2019s best interest. Even if a parent is able to care for the child, the court can approve the guardianship if the parents voluntarily relinquish custody of the child. That is what was happening routinely in the Lake County courthouse until late last month, when Judge Joseph Salvi, who recently began hearing guardianship cases, questioned a petition involving a high school student who lives with his parents in suburban Long Grove. The judge denied guardianship and, in response, the attorney for the guardian, a \u201cclose family friend\u201d of the student, wrote a brief arguing why the judge should use his \u201cbroad authority\u201d to grant the guardianship. In the brief, attorney Mari Berlin argued that the student\u2019s parents are finalizing a divorce and can\u2019t afford to support his college education. It said that the family is \u201cworking with a Certified College Planner to help him find a way to independently support himself through college, with specific focus on how to afford tuition.\u201d Berlin wrote in the brief that the student, who dreams of becoming a doctor, would be best served by a guardianship \u201cthat would allow him to attain the independent status necessary to achieve his goal.\u201d Berlin, of the Kabbe Law Group, said the firm has represented families in about a dozen cases in Lake County. She said the firm has filed between 20 and 30 cases in all, with varying success, throughout the Chicago area during the past two years, including in Kane, Will, DuPage, Cook and McHenry counties. Berlin said families who are going this route are in a financial position where their income is too high to qualify for financial aid but they still will struggle to pay for college. While this is an atypical use of guardianship, Berlin said, families have a strong legal basis for bringing the cases. The law doesn\u2019t preclude it, she said. \u201cIt\u2019s a solution they have been able to find as college costs go up and they are unable to pay,\u201d she said. \u201cIt is in the best interest of the minor, which is the statute\u2019s purpose.\u201d In typical guardianship cases, an adult is stepping in to care for a child after an unexpected or troubling event: Mothers are homeless, seeking mental health care or working two jobs and can\u2019t care for a child, fathers are in prison, addicted to drugs or deported. One Lake County guardianship case describes a child suffering from \u201csevere physical and emotional abuse\u201d by a parent, while another pleads: \u201cHe is a good kid. He is alone. He needs someone to take care of him.\u201d Those are the types of cases Rebekah Rashidfarokhi usually deals with at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, a legal aid group that she said handles more than 300 guardianship cases in Cook County annually. While she said she hasn\u2019t seen the so-called college guardianship cases, she said the law is intended to address the life of a child as a minor and who will care for the child on a day-to-day basis, not an \u201c11th-hour petition\u201d right before the teen turns 18. \u201cThat\u2019s not the way guardianship is supposed to be used,\u201d she said. \u201cIf someone is trying to do that at the very last minute, it seems that they might be trying to take advantage of the system.\u201d The children obtaining guardianships for educational opportunities have attended some of the area\u2019s most prestigious schools, including Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire and Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook. Others go to high schools in Vernon Hills, Grayslake, Libertyville and Lake Forest. A guardian interviewed by ProPublica Illinois said he felt conflicted when some family friends asked him to be their daughter\u2019s guardian. He wanted to help the girl, whose work ethic and grades he admires. \u201cI did wrestle with this,\u201d said the man, who agreed to speak as long as he was not identified. He said his wife works at a university and \u201cknows it from the other side,\u201d he said. \u201cAnd her comment was, \u2018Is it going to deprive someone else of \u2026 financial aid?\u2019 And so that\u2019s the issue. I was told it does not.\u201d \u201cIt\u2019s one of these gray areas, and my heart wanted me to do it for the family,\u201d the man said. \u201cBut I also have a conscience. I wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing.\u201d The man eventually agreed to become the teenager\u2019s guardian, though the guardianship lasted only about a month, until she turned 18. He said that he did not provide financial support for her, and that she did not live in his home. The man said he asked \u201ca lot\u201d of questions of Rogers, the attorney on the case, and a college consultant named Lora Georgieva with whom the family worked. Georgieva runs a Lincolnshire-based college consulting company, Destination College, which offers \u201cstrategies to lower tuition expenses.\u201d The company\u2019s logo is a graduation cap with dollar bills spilling out of it. In video testimonials, clients praise the company for saving them money. She is tied to at least several of the families, as well as to Rogers, the attorney, who is also featured in the video. The description for the company\u2019s \u201cpremier\u201d services includes a \u201cCollege Financial Plan, Using Income and Asset Shifting Strategies to Increase Your Financial and Merit Aid and Lower Out of Pocket Tuition Expenses.\u201d Reached Monday morning, Georgieva said she was \u201cin the middle of something\u201d and would call later. She then contacted an attorney, Phillip Zisook, who called ProPublica Illinois on her behalf to say she was worried about being depicted in a false light. Zisook said he would relay ProPublica Illinois\u2019 questions to Georgieva. As of publication time, she had not responded. Mark Kantrowitz, a leading financial aid expert and publisher and vice president of research for savingforcollege.com, called the guardianship changes \u201can extreme measure.\u201d \u201cThis is the first time I have heard of something so brazen,\u201d Kantrowitz said. \u201cIt\u2019s completely unethical.\u201d Universities began responding Monday afternoon to the ProPublica Illinois investigation. Christian Basi, a University of Missouri spokesman, said the school is investigating to ensure that guardianships are not filed \u201csimply to try and gain financial advantage.\u201d He said university officials are flagging accounts that may have benefited from this practice and have been in contact with other schools in the Midwest. \u201cWe are and would be extremely disappointed with anyone who would try to change their information with the sole purpose of taking money from a need-based program when they would typically not be eligible,\u201d he said. A spokeswoman for the University of Wisconsin-Madison said the university may review and adjust its financial aid award at any point if evidence emerges that a student is actually receiving parental or other financial support not reported on the FAFSA.