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Statement of Christine Lindstrom, U.S. PIRG Higher Education Program Director, on today’s GAO report on campus debit cards:
Today’s report by the General Accounting Office, entitled “College Debit Cards: Actions Needed to Address ATM Access, Student Choice, and Transparency, “ says it all in the title. The survey of 800 campuses found that millions of students each year are pushed into bank-backed campus debit card accounts to receive their financial aid, only to pay hefty fees to get at those dollars. The accounts confuse students which can cause them to pay more. The report finds that “two large providers charged a fee for card purchases using a personal identification number (PIN) rather than a signature—a fee mainstream debit cards typically do not charge.”
The report also confirms that financial firms give campuses a share in the profits that these cards generate off the backs of the lowest-income students at the school. If this isn’t a campus rip-off that calls for swift and decisive action to safeguard students, then I don’t know what is.
Another agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, today released a review of some of the campus debit card contracts that are public. The CFPB points out that a responsible financial institution makes its contracts public, as a way to ensure an unbiased forum for students to make their banking choices. However, the GAO report finds that most contracts continue to be hard to find. The CFPB also notes that financial firms should let students know that they don’t have to choose the debit card product if they don’t want to. The GAO report finds instances in which schools or card providers appeared to encourage students to enroll in a college card rather than present neutral information about payment options.
Next week, the U.S. Department of Education will begin its rulemaking process to determine what actions should be taken to safeguard students.
As a negotiator, I will press for the strongest possible measures to block the aggressive marketing tactics that push student financial aid recipients into these accounts and to ban the junk fees that are hard to avoid. We’ve heard from too many students, at too many campuses, for too long that these debit cards are not fair.
It’s time to put students first before fees within the federal student aid system.
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