Last month, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund (link opens PDF file) released a report taking aim at a new, distasteful trend: colleges and financial institutions combining forces to enrich themselves at the expense of students looking for a convenient method to access their financial aid.
But wait, you say. Haven't I heard this story before? It is true that these institutions have, for many years, taken advantage of a young, captive audience in order to make money. As a recent editorial in The New York Times notes, it was only four years ago that legislators finally put a stop to the practice of banks paying schools to funnel students through their doors. Shortly thereafter, banks were slapped again for pushing credit cards onto students ill equipped to deal with them.
Enter the debit card, a new, popular, and often little-regulated financial product with so many possibilities. According to U.S. PIRG, there are nearly 900 of these college-bank alliances whereby students are issued school-branded ID cards that double as debit cards with which they may access their loan money. Colleges can make millions of dollars over many years by participating in these partnerships, and banks enjoy a customer retention rate of 75% after students use their cards during their college years.
For students, the benefits are fewer, and the disadvantages often outweigh them altogether. According to one of the study's authors, about 700 of the 900 contracts provide students with debit cards that access their checking accounts, while the other 200 provide prepaid debit cards. Inactivity, swipe, overdraft, and ATM fees, as well as charges to reload prepaid cards, can add up quickly. The real kicker is that students are often using borrowed money -- in the form of student loans -- to pay these fees.
School partnerships are turning into a veritable gold mine for the biggest players in this field. The report cites US Bancorp
Both colleges and banks say they need additional revenue, and these alliances bring in big bucks for both parties. Florida State University's contract with SunTrust
Earlier this month, two Democratic senators asked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to look into these practices. But some college representatives defend the use of debit cards. For instance, PNC and the University of Pennsylvania deny that the system they've agreed to use charges exorbitant fees to students.
Overall, it seems obvious that these contracts need to be made more transparent, as well as more amenable to students. The study notes, for example, that schools should be negotiating fees away, rather than saddling students with them. Students shouldn't be expected to subsidize colleges and banks with their loan money. It's just bad business.
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Fool contributor Amanda Alix owns no shares in the companies mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Higher One Holdings, Wells Fargo, and PNC Financial, and has created a covered strangle position in Wells Fargo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.