Laila Mizami (not her real name) didn't set out to scam the system. "It started off really earnestly," she said. "I wanted to marry the person I was very in love with, who at the time wanted to marry me."
She'd bought a marriage license over the summer, and when it came time to fill out her financial aid forms for the Ivy League school she attends, she realized she could have "all this money coming in on the basis of being married," even though she hadn't yet officially tied the knot. When she explained the situation to her financial advisor, Mizami said he told her not to worry—FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is self-reported, not verified by the government, so she wouldn't have to prove that she'd actually gone through with the marriage to take the grants.
What Mizami had stumbled into is what some would call a bureaucratic loophole, and others would call a federal crime. By buying a marriage license a week before signing her FAFSA application, she had qualified as an "independent," and therefore in need of government aid. The sum of that aid was about $20,000 in grants and a $5,000 Pell grant.
For many students, the independent designation is the difference between free or affordable tuition and years and years of debt. If you're "dependent," which applies to most students in college, your financial aid is judged on your parent's income. If you're "independent," need is judged on your own. Since full-time students rarely make a living on their own, that difference could mean tens of thousands of dollars. There are 13 ways a student can qualify as an independent—among them, things like being an orphan, serving in the military, or otherwise proving that your parents are out of the picture financially. Of all the options, getting married is the easiest.
The scheme is established enough that, at one point, there was a website (whypaytuition.com) set up like a dating site for tuition-based marriages. Rick Conley, who founded the site, served in the Air Force and said people "got married to take advantage of the benefits that the military gave married couples." College, he discovered, wasn't so different. "I found out that if two college kids got married, the college would give free tuition."
When it comes to schools with large endowments, discounted or free tuition is just one of the perks. I entered my own student income in Yale's Student Aid Calculator, and I wrote my status as "separated." I found that alongside eligibility to receive the Pell grant (a non-loan federal grant, up to $5,815 per year), my hypothetical Yale education would be free. At public schools, independent students also qualify instantly for instate tuition even if they're out-of-state students, which shaves off a significant portion of the tuition. Other benefits include work-study, and at some schools, eligibility to live off-campus rather than in expensive dorms.
It's quite a loophole—but are people actually exploiting it? I talked to Dan Barnard, who officiated a sham marriage eight years ago, while studying at UC Berkeley.
"The whole thing started out as a joke," said Barnard, who got his officiant license using an online service. "This was an openly homosexual man and a girl. It was as much a stab in the eye of the system of marriage as it was for the money."
According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, 3.8 percent of students qualify as independent because of their marital status—small but not insubstantial. But financial aid experts say if students are marrying for tuition reasons, it's not happening often.
"If we get one student a year, that's a lot," said Don Crewell, director of financial aid at California Institute of Technology. Typically, he added, students "will decide after two or three years to get married," not at the on-set of college to save money on tuition.
Mizami, however, wasn't even married when she received aid. She bought a marriage license, but she decided not to go through with the wedding, and the uncertified license expired. I asked Audren Morris-Sandoval, a financial aid compliance officer at UCLA, what kind of proof was required to qualify as married on the FAFSA.
"The student signs the FAFSA under penalty of perjury; therefore, we do not require proof of marriage," wrote Morris-Sandoval in an email. "However, if students attempt to change their dependency status after they have filed a FAFSA as a result of marriage, we would typically request a copy of the marriage certificate." In other words, unless you're changing your status, proof isn't required at all.
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"I definitely think this is a loophole that just wasn't thought through by some bureaucrat once-upon-a-time," said Mizami.
But according to lawyers, the consequences are pretty clear.
"That's perjury," said Paul Wallin, a defense attorney who's been dealing in such cases for 35 years. "She could get anything from probation to county jail."
In addition to perjury, Wallin said lying to get aid would be considered fraud. In 2000, Congress passed the College Scholarship Fraud Prevention Act, setting a maximum penalty of five years in prison or fines of up to $20,000 for anyone participating in Pell grant fraud. While the consequences are harsh, the fact remains that these crimes are largely undetected. "Someone would have to squeal on her," said Wallin.
Morris-Sandoval confirmed this, saying that investigations are held "usually [after] receiving an anonymous report." Administrators look for inconsistencies if something looks awry and not necessarily evidence to prove that the marriage is legit. Crewell said that in his experience, he's never encountered a student who had committed fraud.
"Not that I'm aware of, anyway," he told me. "Every once in a while we'll ask about inconsistencies and see that they're addressed before we can proceed. But that's something we're required to do."
Mizami has two years of school left, and she expects her status to roll over without having to show any evidence of her marriage—which is lucky, since the evidence doesn't exist.
"The thing you learn above all else is how to play school," said Mizami. "It doesn't have to do with how brilliant you are, or how earnest you are, or how kind. It has to do with knowing which hoops to jump through in what ways. I don't think it's a cheaters' system. I think it's just how the world works."
"I made the marriage license into a paper boat," said Mizami. It now lies somewhere in the icy waters of Lake Michigan. Love, unlike student debt, rarely ever lasts.
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