WASHINGTON — 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, an early copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
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.
“For decades, student aid was distributed without fees,” said Rich Williams, the report’s lead author. “Now bank middlemen are making out like bandits using campus cards to siphon off millions of student aid dollars.”
Programs like 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, Williams said.
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 CFPB, which regulates cards and private student lenders.
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.”
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.