It took Mario Parker-Milligan less than a semester to decide that he was paying too many fees to Higher One, the company hired by his college to pay out students’ financial aid on debit cards.
Four years after he opted out, his classmates still face more than a dozen fees — for replacement cards, for using the cards as all-purpose debit cards, for using an ATM other than the two on-campus kiosks owned by Higher One.
"They sold it as a faster, cheaper way for the college to get students their money," said Parker-Milligan, 23, student body president at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore. "It may be cheaper for the college, but it’s not cheaper for the students."
As many as 900 colleges are pushing students into using payment cards that carry hefty costs, sometimes even to get to their financial aid money, according to a report released Wednesday by a public interest group.
Colleges and banks rake in millions from the fees, often through secretive deals and sometimes in apparent violation of federal law, according to the report.
More than two out of five U.S. higher-education students — more than 9 million people — attend schools that have deals with financial companies, says the report, written by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Higher Education Fund.
The fees add to the mountain of debt many students already take on to get a diploma. U.S. student debt tops $1 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Student loans have surpassed credit cards as the biggest source of unsecured debt in America, according to the bureau, which regulates cards and private student lenders.
Among the fees charged by Higher One, according to its website, is a $50 "lack of documentation fee" for students who fail to submit certain paperwork. The U.S. Department of Education called the charging of such fees "unallowable" in guidance to financial aid officers issued last month.
Higher One founder and Chief Operating Officer Miles Lasater said in an email that the company takes compliance with the government’s rules "very seriously," and officially swears that to the government each year.
"We are committed to providing good value accounts that are designed for college students," he said, and students must review the company’s fee list when they sign up for an account. He cited a study commissioned by Higher One that declared Higher One "a low-cost provider for this market." The same study found that the median fees charged to the 2 million students with Higher One accounts totaled $49 annually.
Among the fees charged to students who open Higher One accounts —$50 if an account is overdrawn for more than 45 days, $10 per month if the student stops using his or her account for six months, $29 to $38 for overdrawing an account with a recurring bill payment and 50 cents to use a PIN instead of a signature system at a retail store.
Higher One has agreements with 520 campuses that enroll more than 4.3 million students, about one-fifth of the students enrolled in college nationwide, according to public filings and the U.S. PIRG report. Wells Fargo and US Bank combined have deals with schools that enroll 3.7 million, the report says.
In Utah, Utah Valley University has partnered with Utah Community Credit Union to disburse financial aid and other payments to students. According to the report, the University of utah and Brigham Young have no partnerships.
UVU students may opt for the school’s PlusCard, a student identification that doubles as a Visa debit card and a transit pass. The school encourages its students to obtain a free UCCU checking account and get the debit card, but signing up with UCCU is not required to obtain financial aid. Officials took steps to shield students from the fees criticized in the public interest group report, said Mike Jones, a senior UVU accountant.
UVU gets a portion of UCCU’s transaction fee every time the card is used, according to the UVU card’s website. The card is issued at no cost, and no fee is charged for using ATMs in UCCU’s network, which includes six on the Orem campus.
"It was the best deal for students and paid us the most amount of money," Jones said. "The overdraft fees are lower than most banks, but they offer a coupon book that gives two free overdrafts. There are no dormancy fees and no fee for using your PIN."
Lane Community College’s president, Mary Spilde, said in an interview that the real problem is a "lack of adequate public funding," which forces students to seek financial aid and colleges to find ways to cut costs.
"Many institutions are looking at ways to streamline and to do things that we’re good at, which is education and learning, and not banking," Spilde said.
Programs such as Higher One’s shift the cost of handing out financial aid money from universities, which no longer have to print and mail checks, to fee-paying students, said Rich Williams, the report’s lead author.
"For decades, student aid was distributed without fees," Williams said. "Now bank middlemen are making out like bandits using campus cards to siphon off millions of student aid dollars."Next Page >
Copyright 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.