The 21st Show

Parents Trading Custody For Financial Aid; Sen. Tom Cullerton Indictment; Will It Play In Peoria?

A student fills out a college enrollment application at Roosevelt High School in Washington.

A student fills out a college enrollment application at Roosevelt High School in Washington. Susan Walsh/AP

Dozens of well-off families in the Chicago suburbs got extra financial aid from the University of Illinois and other colleges by strategically giving up custody of their kids, sometimes months before their child turned 18. Plus, Illinois State Senator Tom Cullerton has been charged by federal prosecutors. He’s accused of being on a union payroll for hundreds of thousands of dollars, even though he did almost no work for them. And you’ve likely heard the phrase “Will it play in Peoria?”. But its meaning has evolved over the years to adapt to the city’s surprising history. 

Lake County, in the suburbs of Chicago, is one of the wealthiest in the state. That’s why it came as a surprise when news surfaced last week that the Lake County courthouse had a number of unusual custody cases.

It turns out more than forty families transferred custody of their high school children in order to get college financial aid for which they wouldn’t otherwise have been eligible - in some cases, months before the child turned 18. 

Parents involved include doctors, lawyers, and insurance agents earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Similar custody-for-financial-aid cases have surfaced in McHenry County, also home to affluent Chicago suburbs. 

Jodi Cohen, a reporter with ProPublica Illinois, was one of the journalists who first broke the story. Andy Borst is director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where they’ve identified at least 14 possible custody-for-financial-aid cases. Natalia Abrams is the executive director of, where she advocates for student debt reform. 


State Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Villa Park, has been accused of illegally collecting more than $274,000 dollars from the Teamsters Union. On Friday, federal prosecutors charged the senator with 41 counts of corruption. 

Prosecutors say he’s been on the payroll but did little or no work. Sen. Cullerton denies the charges.

Dan Petrella is a state government reporter for the Chicago Tribune. 


No matter where you’re from, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “will it play in Peoria?”

The central Illinois city of about 100,000 is set along the Illinois River. It’s a four-time All-America City Award winner and was home to Caterpillar, Inc., the maker of those big yellow, earth moving machines — at least until even that company decamped for the bright lights and traffic jams of the Chicago suburbs.

To those outside of Peoria, the place might be a Richard Pryor punchline, but it’s also come to represent a sort of mythologized place, synonymous with the Midwest.  So the phrase “will it play in Peoria?” has come to mean, if it goes over well with people there - won’t it go over anywhere? But Peoria’s history, like that of a lot of Midwestern cities, is complicated, surprising and more nuanced than milquetoast. In fact, Peoria was once known as an All-American “Sin city.” 

Bridey Heing recently wrote about the evolution of the phrase “will it play in Peoria?” for Lapham’s Quarterly. Reid Epstein is a politics reporter at the New York Times and Peoria native who got his start in journalism at age 12, delivering the Peoria Journal-Star. 

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