Amid an intense national furor over the fairness of college admissions, the Education Department is looking into a tactic that has been used in some suburbs here, in which wealthy parents transfer legal guardianship of their college-bound children to relatives or friends so the teens can claim financial aid, say people familiar with the matter.

The strategy caught the department’s attention amid a spate of guardianship transfers here. It means that only the children’s earnings were considered in their financial-aid applications, not the family income or savings. That has led to awards of scholarships and access to federal financial aid designed for the poor, these people said.

Several universities in Illinois say they are looking into the practice, which is legal. “Our financial-aid resources are limited and the practice of wealthy parents transferring the guardianship of their children to qualify for need-based financial aid—or so-called opportunity hoarding—takes away resources from middle- and low-income students,” said Andrew Borst, director of undergraduate enrollment at the University of Illinois. “This is legal, but we question the ethics.”