Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: Coleong/Thinkstock
The College Board recently reported that college costs are finally decelerating — tuition grew just 2.9 percent this year versus the roughly 7 percent it’s been growing each year for decades. But they’re still growing faster than household incomes, creating a desperate situation for many parents — including, apparently, the dad of a former Harvard University student, who admitted Tuesday that he resorted to lying to get his daughter’s financial aid. He now he faces up to 20 years in prison for the deception.
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Joseph N. Fonge pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Boston to three counts of wire fraud for falsifying his income. The changes he made scored his daughter more than $160,000 in financial aid from the university and the federal government over three years. (For context, the national average for undergrad financial aid was $14,180 per full-time student last year.)
The father’s inaccurate federal income tax returns misrepresented the student’s need in the College Scholarship Service profile and Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for tuition help at Harvard, where 70 percent of attendees get financial aid to cover the $58,607 yearly cost. And that’s not all: Fonge is also on the hook for defrauding the University of Rochester $46,600 for another daughter back in 2010. He is scheduled to be sentenced March 4.
But this fraud doesn’t surprise college planning expert Bev Taylor. “Falsifying documents regarding college applications is no big news these days,” the Ivy Coach tells Yahoo Parenting. “Kids are falsifying documents all the time, cheating on the SATs and such.”
Ditto, says student financial aid expert, Mark Kantrowitz, who literally wrote the book on the aid process, called Filling the FAFSA. “I see stories every couple of weeks with someone convicted of financial aid fraud, but the amounts tend to be relatively small, so unless it’s a ring or there’s something sensationalistic about it, it doesn’t get much attention.” Scamming for federal Pell grants is most common, says Kantrowitz. Indeed, the U.S. Deptartment of Education flagged 126,000 suspect applicants for the 2013-2014 school year.
With about $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and work study given out by the U.S. Department of Education in 2013 alone, per spokeswoman Jane Glickman, there’s a lot of money up for grabs.
In recent years, the agency has “gotten stricter,” about how students and parents file for aid, says Kantrowitz. They are now requiring that information come directly from the IRS instead of the individuals, for instance, and cracking down on fraud with independent audits, inspections, and other reviews conducted by the law enforcement arm of the department, the Office of Inspector General. "Investigating and fighting student aid fraud has long been a top priority of our office," their Public Affairs Liaison Catherine Grant tells Yahoo Parenting.
Schools don’t take the matter lightly, either. “Some universities will expel a student who commits financial fraud – even if it was the parent who falsified the documents,” according to Kantrowitz. “The student signed them. So parents really need to know: If you commit fraud on the FAFSA, besides stealing from the federal government, you’re putting yourself and your kids at risk.”