Go to any college or university in the United States and you will find most students carrying the same items: books, laptops, cell phones and their official school identification cards, or IDs.
These small plastic cards do more than show the names and pictures of the students who own them. They also permit students to open the electronic locks to campus buildings and borrow books from school libraries.
In recent years, some colleges and universities have added an additional use for ID cards: buying things. The schools enter into agreements with banks so students can link their cards to private financial accounts. This way, students can use their cards to pay for things like food on campus and school supplies. In other words, their IDs become debit cards.
However, new research suggests that the way these card programs operate can harm students.
Some students at risk to pay high fees
Kaitlyn Vitez is the higher education campaign director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG. Her organization aims to use research to support and protect people’s financial interests.
She told VOA that PIRG has been looking into agreements between schools and banks for several years. This April, the group released its latest findings.
PIRG found that, overall, students with campus debit cards paid over $24 million in fees during the last contract year. For example, students may be charged fees if they use another bank to withdraw money. Or, they may be charged fees if they spend more money than they have in their bank accounts. Many international students face fees for using the cards to buy things from their home countries.
Any large fee can create unexpected problems for students, says PIRG’s Kaitlyn Vitez. And, she argues that banks do not make possible fees clear enough to students.
But Vitez’s biggest concern is whether some schools may urge students towards banks that may harm them financially. She notes that some banks pay colleges and universities for permission to advertise their debit card programs on campus. The advertising can appear to be part of official school programming, she says, and students may feel pushed towards opening accounts.
PIRG also found a connection between schools with paid agreements and student fees. Students at schools that received money from banks ended up paying up to 2.3 times more than students at schools with unpaid agreements.
One example is Wells Fargo Bank. In recent years, the company has been involved in several situations that were either illegal or very harmful for consumers. It also earned nearly $11.3 million in fee payments from students at the 24 schools it had paid agreements with last contract year.
Vitez notes that many schools need financial support anywhere they can get it. But, she says, “When schools are setting their students up for … lifelong relationships with Wells Fargo, does that set students up for success? I would say no.”
What do the schools say?
VOA contacted several of the schools in the latest PIRG study. Texas State University, where students paid over $1 million in fees last contract year, chose not to comment. So did Florida International University, where students paid over $1.3 million, and Virginia Commonwealth University, where students paid over $500,000.
The University of Nevada, Reno, or UNR, started its paid agreement for a campus debit card program with Wells Fargo in 2005. Last contract year, UNR students paid over $700,000 in fees. The bank paid the school about $100,000.
Penny Leathley is the campus card manager for UNR. She argues that the fact that over 9,000 students have campus debit cards shows that the program works well.
“To me that’s a good program,” said Leathley. “That shows that many parents and their students want to be involved in it.”
She notes all banks have fees. And, she says, students can choose whether they want to use the Wells Fargo campus debit card program.
If students are paying extra, Leathley suggests, they are likely using their cards for things beyond the free services the accounts offer.
But Tanya Ladha argues irresponsible use is not the only explanation for why students face fees. She is the director of the Center for Financial Services Innovation, a non-profit consumer support group. Ladha claims that some students just do not have the information they need.
To be sure, banks can give special permissions to parents to observe students’ debit card activities. And Wells Fargo Bank offers lessons on financial responsibility. In addition, workers at its on-campus bank speak several languages.
But Ladha notes that some parents lack financial knowledge themselves. And few high schools require students to take financial education classes. As a result, a number of students know little or depend on what the banks tell them.
What do the banks say?
Wells Fargo is not the only bank to operate campus debit card programs. U.S. Bank collected nearly $300,000 in fees from its 36 partner colleges and universities last year. SunTrust Bank earned over $1 million from one school alone: Florida State University, where 93 percent of students have accounts.
On the other hand, PNC Bank was able to earn $1.3 million in fees while keeping its average fee payments per student to nearly a third of what others charge. PNC representatives told VOA in an email the amount the company pays the schools is “never directly tied to the amount of fees paid by student account holders.”
In April, Wells Fargo announced changes to its campus debit cards. The company said it would permit account holders to overdraft their accounts without a fee once a month. They can also withdraw money from another bank up to four times a month.
“We’re proud of the fact that four out of five students that join us through the campus card program stay with us after they leave school,” said Wells Fargo representative Jim Seitz. “We maintain that relationship by providing high-quality service and great customer experiences.”
But Kaitlyn Vitez of U.S. PIRG argues that the best solution is for the government to limit paid agreements between banks and schools and ban aggressive advertising of debit cards on campus.
“All this information at the Department of Education’s fingertips that they’re not looking into, and there’s real harm being done to students,” she said.
I’m Dorothy Gundy.
And I'm John Russell.
Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. We want to hear from you. How much do you know about bank fees and other money issues? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
account(s) – n. an arrangement in which a bank keeps a record of the money that a person puts in and takes out of the bank
consumer(s) – n. a person who buys goods and services
overdraft – v. to withdraw more money from an account than is available
proud – adj. very happy and pleased because of something you have done, something you own, someone you know or are related to
aggressive – adj. using forceful methods to succeed or to do something
at (the Department of Education’s) fingertips – idm. easy to find or use