Another concern outlined in the report: Students must often go through the bank’s website to choose how they receive their money, and that website is designed to steer them to the bank-provided card. Williams advises students to make the extra effort — at MDC, a special form must be signed — to have the money directly deposited into a traditional checking account instead.
E.H. Levering, MDC’s chief financial officer, said the college saves at least $100,000 a year by no longer printing paper checks and mailing them to students. If a student still wants a paper check, and is willing to wait for it, Higher One mails it out.
Higher One also sweetens the deal for the college by making annual donations of $45,000 to the Miami Dade College Foundation, the school’s charitable arm.
Levering acknowledges that Higher One charges “somewhat unique” fees to students, but he argues students still benefit from the arrangement. For example, Higher One allows all students to open a debit card account, regardless of credit history, and the account offers traditional bank account features such as writing checks and direct deposit of paychecks from employers.
For students who previously relied on check-cashing stores and other options outside banks, Levering said the Higher One account is a better alternative.
“It’s a very nice starter bank account for an unbanked student,” Levering said. “We’ve done more than our due diligence.”
Levering said more than half of Florida’s community colleges have partnered with Higher One.
Higher One’s overdraft fees garnered national attention in August after the company agreed to pay $11 million in restitution to college students as part of a deal with federal regulators. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. also charged the company a $110,000 civil fine.
The FDIC had accused Higher One of charging students multiple overdraft fees stemming from a single transaction. Higher One admitted no legal liability under its deal with regulators, and company spokeswoman Shoba Lemoine said the disputed fees affected less than 2 percent of account holders.
Lemoine also said Higher One is phasing out its inactivity fee, and on some accounts the debit transaction fee will no longer be charged. Lemoine stressed that Higher One explains all of its fees on its website, and includes instructions to students on how to avoid each of the charges.
The shift to electronic disbursement of financial aid, Lemoine argued, is more environmentally friendly and ensures that students get their money quicker.
“We want that experience with Higher One to be positive and straightforward,” Lemoine said. “It’s really a misconception that we have all these sneaky hidden fees. It’s absolutely not true.”