Financial aid funds available via Debit Card
Arrival of that bright green Higher One envelope containing the new MasterCard makes some students grin while others growl. Every student awarded financial aid at Peninsula College receives their financial aid disbursement via a higher one MasterCard debit card; like it or not.
According to its press release, Peninsula College “partnered” with the financial services corporation from New Haven, Connecticut to “…allow the college to save money on printing and mailing of paper checks multiple times a year,” according to Krista Francis; Financial Aid Director at Peninsula College.
Deborah Frazier; vice president for administrative services estimates savings at “$3,500 to $4,000 in postage and check writing-not to mention labor. Francis explains there is no payment of any kind made to the college in exchange for delivering these desirable consumers to the financial company’s database.
The state does not mandate use of Higher One,” said Laura McDowell, Communications Director with the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC). “The decision to bring it on campus is an individual college decision. There is a general use contract provided by the state which individual colleges use as a starting point for negotiations with Higher One.” McDowell continued.
Jack Huls; vice president for student services at Peninsula College named those making the decision to bring Higher One to the college include Krista Francis, Deborah Frazier and himself.
When asked if the students were polled to see if this is something they wanted, Huls replied, “No, we did not do a poll. When asked if he thought it advisable to poll students before sending their money to a Connecticut bank Huls replied, “I’m not going to answer that question.” When asked if he would recommend this program to his college age kid he replied, “I’m not going to answer that question.
Under this new arrangement Peninsula College sends $10 million to $12 million annually of local student’s financial aid money and students’ personal identifiers to Higher One in New Haven, Connecticut. Higher One in turn doles money out to students via a MasterCard debit card.
Students’ privacy protected?
Students’ privacy in higher education; including financial aid information is governed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) codified at 20 U. S. C. 1232g within the United States Code.
According to FERPA, until, and unless students sign a waiver allowing release of personal information, they have a right to assume the college safeguards all financial and educational information.
Shoba Lemoine; Media Relations Director with Higher One claims student information may be sent to third parties when involving financial aid. When asked to identify the exact passage from FERPA upon which she relied in making that claim Lemoine promised to follow up that same day with an email with the exact quote from FERPA allowing release of private student data. At press time, a week later, that information was not received.
Local officials, according to Huls, rely upon Higher One to ensure compliance with FERPA privacy guidelines. “Look within FERPA,” said Huls when asked to show where students waive their privacy rights. “Higher One is an extension of the college; think of it as our business office.” continued Huls. While Peninsula College’s news release and each of the administrators interviewed for this story used the term “partnered” when describing the relationship between Peninsula College and Higher One the actual contract at 13.1 plainly states the arrangement is not to be construed as a “partnership.”
Access to money and costly fees
Student reception of this new financial arrangement is mixed. Some students appreciate the convenience and are able to navigate the system without incurring unexpected fees. Some, however, face aggravation when attempting to wrest their funds from Higher One. Even when successful the fees can be onerous.
We operate in more than 600 institutions nationwide…we have two million account holders,” said Lemoine. She also explained that half the students offered the cards refuse them. Some never activate the cards while some just ignore them. If a student does nothing a paper check will be sent to the student after a default period.
Other options are advisable and must be navigated carefully. In 2010 Higher One took in more than $66 million in “convenience fees” nationwide. These 66 million, largely taxpayer-supplied dollars, end up with shareholders of the Connecticut bank.
“They didn’t explain there was a big honking fee for a cash advance”, said Sarah Moss; Medical Assistance student from Sequim. When paying her rent, Moss obtained the $500 daily maximum allowed by the Higher One ATM on campus. Her rent is $700. When she went to her local bank to get the other $200, Higher One charged her $17 to receive her own money. Her local bank charged her nothing.
Moss’s transaction was treated as a “cash advance fee” which is a fee normally charged when using a CREDIT card to access money one does not already have in the account.
Higher One’s ATM is located inside the Pirate Union Building (PUB). Students have access to the ATM only when the PUB is open. To get money at another ATM the student is susceptible to the other ATM charges plus a similar charge by Higher One for using another ATM. Students have the option of using their new MasterCard debit card or they can move their money to another account–or receive a check–from Higher One. Herein lies the problem.
To gain custody of their money students must contact Higher One online. Then Higher One will ask them to fax the routing numbers for the bank they wish to handle their money. Ostensibly, they need a faxed signature although they needed no signature to receive the student’s money from the college.
Receiving the check may take more than one attempt. It may also require some patience as in the case of Taneysha Dodson of Joyce. When Dodson first received her Higher One debit card she contacted them to send her a check. After a couple of weeks into the new quarter she was still waiting. By press time Dodson had received her funds.
Classmate Taya Dancel enjoys using the new MasterCard, but says, “receiving a check was much better but now it takes an extra two weeks to get that. I can’t even pay the rent with their daily limits.
Peninsula College financial aid officials respond to the confusion hosting formal and informal information sessions. Some held during finals-week when most students are, or should be studying.
Higher One representatives were on campus explaining best use of the debit card and how to avoid fees according to Francis. “All the information is available at www.peninsulacard.com”
ASC provided a FAQ sheet that has been placed in the PUB and Student Services has flyers that they have been handing out. “On our website there is a link to How to use the One Account Card for Free. Most of the problems are associated with incorrect address supplied by students.” explained Francis. (Blame it on the Students)
“How to Use the One Account Card for Free” contains two pages entitled “Fee Schedule.”
Higher One investigated
Concern for the new Higher One program is widespread. Brent Hunsberger; writing for The Oregonian reports, “Higher One faces class action suits over deceptive card fees on college campuses.” In a blog at The Oregonian “It’s Only Money” Hunsberger explains students at Western Washington University in Bellingham created a Students Against Higher One Facebook page and held rallies in 2011 voicing concerns over unnecessary fees.
Hunsberger further reported the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) ordered Higher One to repay students $11 million to settle charges of “unfair and deceptive practices.”
In April of last year Sherry McFall, a student at Ventura County Community College in California filed a class action suit against Higher One alleging violations of consumer protection law and violations of the Electronic Funds Transfer Act (EFTC).
The New City Collegian Seattle’s original community college’s newspaper said an article in their pages acted as a catalyst spurring “district-wide investigations into the company’s practices all the way up to the Seattle Community College’s Board of Trustees.
Francis, Huls and Frazier acknowledged they were aware of these investigations before bringing Higher One to Peninsula College. “Fees are in the contract and Higher One’s own business practices have changed since 2010, but I can’t comment on how the [contract] negotiations did or didn’t limit fees.” said Francis.
There is a general use contract, provided by the state, which individual colleges use as a starting point for negotiations with Higher One.” said McDowell.
Since Higher One negotiates different contracts with different colleges it is necessary for each college’s administration to bargain for the best deal for their students. When students complain at various colleges–as occurred at Portland State College and Eastern Oregon College–those administrators were able to return to the bargaining table and hammer out a better deal for their students. Administrators at these two colleges were able to eliminate the fifty-cent “swipe fee” which Peninsula College students must pay when they use their new debit card and input their PIN.