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Advocates, students upset over financial aid loophole

One suspicious case at the University of Missouri is for $5,000, the school confirmed.

The University of Missouri is looking at a handful of cases where students may have improperly received financial aid.

It comes days after a report from ProPublica Illinois that said some parents gave up guardianship of their children so they would qualify for need-based aid. Without the change, the report said the families would not have qualified.

RELATED: Reports: Wealthy parents transfer guardianship of kids to get college financial aid

The school confirmed it has flagged fewer than 10 cases that are suspicious. All the cases are at the Columbia campus. The investigation began several weeks ago.

One case was for $5,000, the school confirmed. 

A spokesman said the school is disappointed and frustrated that any family would take advantage of the system in this way.

He said they are still investigating a few dozen more to see if there is anything suspicious. All other University of Missouri schools are examining their cases as well. 

This week, frustration has been simmering for education advocates who help guide students through financial aid. 

"It's infuriating to think about the difference between the folks who need the guardianship and need the aid and the individuals in the North Shore of Chicago who we are reading about," said Faith Sandler, who is the executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, "who have created a guardianship legal loophole to get money for their kids that someone else desperately needs."

Sandler said they help thousands in the St. Louis area navigate financial aid and they even provide some for students. On Thursday, they distributed more than $5 million to students in the form of interest-free loans and grants. 

Out of the students they help, she said many have had changes in guardianship. 

"We see people, young people best in guardianship when they have lost contact with their parents, parents are not in the household or the city anymore," Sandler said. "Parents are incarcerated, parents have a health or addiction problem in particular that makes the student's health and safety questionable. Or the death of a parent."

She said she's afraid, because of families abusing the system in a legal way, changes could be coming to how financial aid is distributed to those with a change in custody. 

Sandler said she fears applicants could need to provide more documentation about "a family's financial circumstance," which will only make it harder to receive aid for those who truly need it.

"There are many low-income families for which that is a huge burden," she said, adding that the process can already be challenging unless an accountant is involved.

She said instead, schools should do a more diligent job considering students and then asking for more financial documents to people whose applications raise suspicion.

University of Missouri officials said the school will be asking for more financial documents as their investigation continues.

Students who improperly received financial aid will not be expelled because there has not been academic fraud, according to a school official. Rather, the school will pull any need-based aid from the student's account.

It is unclear if this policy would apply retroactively or only for future semesters of tuition.

To students in the St. Louis area who are on financial aid -- not due to a change in guardianship though -- it is disappointing.

"They're taking away from people who really need it," said Autumn Taylor, a junior at St. Louis University.

She said she wants to be an immigration attorney; however, if she did not get financial aid, she would not have that chance.

"Education is the greatest equalizer," she said. "And they are taking away that opportunity away from lower-income people to be able to pursue education."

Taylor said she comes from a lower-income home. So does Lakeisha Woodfork, a junior at Harris-Stowe State University. She wants to be a kindergarten teacher.

She said she hopes to serve in a lower-income school district, to help students who are just like she was. Without the aid she received, she said she wouldn't be able to do that.

"It kind of hurts," she said about the details in the ProPublica Illinois report. 

Five On Your Side reached out to several other schools in the bi-state to see if they are investigating any suspicious financial aid cases. McKendree University, Southern Illinois University, Washington University in St. Louis, and St. Louis University all have none.

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