The new couple on campus: Student loan and debit card

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By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010

Soon after they arrived on campus, more than a million college students across the country received a welcome letter and a plastic card bearing a MasterCard logo from a little-known company called Higher One:

"Meet your new best friend on campus," the letter reads. A school's emblem is featured in the letterhead - and even on the card - and students are urged to activate their accounts quickly.

This is not a credit card offer. Instead, it is a new type of plastic that allows students to easily access money from their college loans everywhere from the bookstore to the bar with the swipe of a card. These cards, however, are not subject to the broad new regulations that took effect this year and sought to curtail similar relationships between colleges and credit card issuers. Meanwhile, students complain that the loan cards are riddled with high fees, and they have organized protests at several campuses.

"That's really just not the best thing to be doing with our financial aid," said Shane Gerbert, who helped lead the campaign against Higher One at the University of North Dakota. "They're siphoning it away little by little."

But college officials contend that the loan cards make life much easier for administrators and students, and that they can provide an extra bit of income for cash-strapped schools.

"Sometimes people are looking for evil intent where there is none," said Anne Gross, legislative affairs director for the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Students often take out college loans worth more than the cost of tuition so they can pay for books, housing and living expenses. Schools are responsible for distributing the difference, often resulting in long lines of grumpy students waiting for their checks in front of the bursar's office.

Enter Higher One, which offers to take over that cumbersome process for colleges. The company also sets up accounts for students where the loans are deposited. Once activated, Higher One's product acts as a debit card, allowing students access to loan money left over after tuition.

But sometimes, even those who don't receive financial aid are urged to sign up, just in case. At some schools, the loan cards double as IDs, ensuring that every student on campus has one.

That's the case at Portland State University. School officials say students must carry the cards but aren't required to activate the Higher One account. Yet a majority who have student loans do so anyway.

"You pretty much went to go take your [ID] picture and in the mail you receive these cards and it gives you directions to activate it," said senior Natalia Grozina. "When it's a rule, you don't have the option of not having it."

Complaints about the loan cards offered by Higher One and other firms echo the outcry over marketing techniques and fees by credit card companies that prompted Congress to pass dramatic industry reforms last year.


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