Debit Cards on Campus
Debit Cards on Campus

This story was originally published in VOA's Learning English.

Many college and universities are adding banking functions, like that of a debit or credit card, to student identification cards and charging students fees and interest for the use.

Student IDs are typically used to enter campus buildings, access online sites and check out library books. But some schools have entered into financial agreements with banks so students can link their ID cards to private banking accounts. The convenience allows students to pay for food, school supplies and other expenses on campus.

But new research suggests these card programs put some students at risk of paying high banking fees.

Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education campaign director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education campaign director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Kaitlyn Vitez is the higher education campaign director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a nonprofit organization focused on protecting individuals' financial interests. U.S. PIRG has looked into agreements between schools and banks for several years, she said.

In April, PIRG found that students with campus debit cards paid more than $24 million in fees. Some students paid an extra fee to use an ATM machine to withdraw money that wasn't in their banking network. Or, they paid penalty fees for overdrawing bank accounts. Many international students faced fees for using the cards for purchases outside the U.S.

Any large fee can create unexpected problems for students, Vitez says. And, she argues, banks do not make those fees clear. Additionally, some banks pay colleges and universities to advertise their debit card programs on campus. The advertising might appear as official school programming, she says, and students may feel pushed to opening accounts.

PIRG also found that students at schools that derived revenue from banks paid up to 2.3 times more in fees than students at schools without those paid agreements. Vitez pointed to Wells Fargo Bank, which earned nearly $11.3 million in fee payments from students at 24 schools where it has paid agreements.

"When schools are setting their students up for ... lifelong relationships with Wells Fargo, does that set students up for success?" Vitez asked. "I would say, no."

Debit Cards on Campus

What do schools say?

At Texas State University, students paid more than $1 million in fees last contract year. Students at Florida International University paid more than $1.3 million. And at Virginia Commonwealth University, students paid more than $500,000. All three schools declined to comment to VOA.

U.S. Bank collected nearly $300,000 in fees from its 36 partner colleges and universities last year. SunTrust Bank earned more than $1 million from one school alone: Florida State University, where 93% 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. In an email, PNC representatives said the amount the company pays the schools is "never directly tied to the amount of fees paid by student account holders."

The University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) started its paid agreement for a campus debit card program with Wells Fargo in 2005. Last contract year, UNR students paid more than $700,000 in fees. The bank paid the school about $100,000.

More than 9,000 students have campus debit cards at UNR, indicating that the program works well, said Penny Leathley, UNR's campus card manager.

"To me, that's a good program," Leathley said. "That shows that many parents and their students want to be involved in it."

All banks have fees, she said, and students have the option to join the campus debit card program offered by Wells Fargo.

Tanya Ladha, director of the Center for Financial Services Innovation.
Tanya Ladha, director of the Center for Financial Services Innovation.

Tanya Ladha, director of the Center for Financial Services Innovation, a nonprofit consumer support group, said excess fees are not all the result of irresponsible use of the banking products. She said some students don't have enough information about the products.

Students can give their parents access to their accounts, and Wells Fargo Bank offers lessons on financial responsibility.

But Ladha said some parents lack financial literacy, and most high school students lack financial education. As a result, a number of students know little or depend on what the banks tell them.

What do banks say?

In April, Wells Fargo announced changes to its campus debit cards: Account holders may overdraft their accounts without a penalty fee once a month, and students may withdraw money from another bank's ATM up to four times a month.

Jim Seitz, Wells Fargo Corporate Communications

"We're proud of the fact that 4 out of 5 students that join us through the campus card program stay with us after they leave school," Wells Fargo representative Jim Seitz said. "We maintain that relationship by providing high-quality service and great customer experiences."

But 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.