(istock/istock)

College students paid nearly $25 million in fees on campus-sponsored debit cards last year as banks struck lucrative deals with universities to offer financial products to largely low-income populations, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The advocacy group combed through a U.S. Education Department database of hundreds of contracts between colleges and financial institutions, and found that some agreements left students vulnerable to high fees on checking accounts and debit and prepaid cards. Students who attend colleges that are paid to promote the accounts were charged 2.3 times more in fees than those at universities without such marketing deals, the report found.

The findings reignite a long-standing debate about the responsibility colleges have to ensure that students are not steered into accounts with onerous terms. The Obama administration imposed regulations that advocacy groups say curbed some of the worst practices, but universities are still allowed to partner with financial institutions that aggressively market products that may not be in students’ best interests.

At least 1.1 million college students have campus-sponsored debit cards, according to the latest data from the Education Department.

Colleges often use the cards to disburse money left over when a student’s financial aid award exceeds tuition and fees, known as credit balance refunds. They outsource the processing of that money to banks in exchange for millions of dollars paid to the schools. A number of colleges also accept money from financial firms to use their logo or to place checking or prepaid account features on student IDs.

The trouble with these arrangements is that some campus cards are riddled with fees that can eat into what little money students hold. A 2015 regulation banned banks from imposing fees on students for overdrawing accounts carrying financial aid money but did not explicitly extend the restriction to other types of campus cards.

As a result, those accounts tend to feature fewer protections and higher fees for monthly maintenance, use of out-of-network ATMs, wire transfers or overdrafts. Banks that pay colleges for the opportunity to market these cards to students can derive hefty profits.

Wells Fargo earned $11.3 million by charging students an average of $44.84 in fees during a 12-month period, the report found. Although the bank held less than one-quarter of all campus debit card accounts, its customers racked up almost half of the total fees.

“At each school, it’s completely optional — students decide if they want the convenience of using their campus ID cards or co-branded debit cards to access their Wells Fargo accounts,” Wells Fargo spokesman Jim Seitz said. “Students don’t pay extra for the services offered or pay higher fees through Wells Fargo’s Campus Card program.”

Seitz said the bank began waiving certain fees for overdrafts, out-of-network ATM use and wire transfers on its campus cards in March. Students can have most of those fees waived once a month on their accounts. Wells Fargo expects that average costs incurred for its campus cardholders will be cut in half.

Kaitlyn Vitez, a higher-education advocate at the Public Interest Research Group who wrote the new report, applauded Wells Fargo’s decision to reduce fees, but said the bank needs to eliminate them.

According to the report, Wells Fargo, PNC Bank and U.S. Bank are among institutions that give schools incentives to maximize the number of campus cards by providing colleges with royalty payments based on the percentage of students with accounts. Wells Fargo struck a deal with the University of North Texas that gives the school bonus payments for adding more than 15,000 accounts.

Kelley Reese a spokeswoman for the University of North Texas, said the school’s contract with Wells Fargo expired Aug. 31, 2018, and was not renewed. Its new contract with JPMorgan Chase does not include a campus card program. Still, Reese defended the deal with Wells Fargo and said the university always provided full disclosure about the relationship on its website, noting that the financial support from the bank helped offset costs.

Other schools said the money they receive from financial partners has become an integral part of their operating budgets, especially as states trim education appropriations.

Grand Valley State University, a public institution in Michigan, entered into an agreement with PNC Bank last year that provides the school a $230,000 royalty payment for adding 2,500 new campus accounts, according to the Public Interest Research Group report. Grand Valley spokeswoman Mary Eilleen Lyon said revenue from the deal goes toward the athletics program, which received $115,000 in the first year of the agreement.

“It is an offer, completely voluntary, and students can choose or not choose to apply and engage with PNC Bank,” Lyon said.

PNC would not discuss the specifics of its marketing agreements with colleges, but spokeswoman Marcey Zwiebel said the bank’s student checking account has no monthly service fees or fees on debit card transactions.

“PNC’s relationship with colleges and universities is about more than simply offering products and services to students,” Zwiebel said. “These relationships provide us with the opportunity to educate students and parents about personal banking and money management, which is a mutually valuable benefit.”

Still, consumer advocates say having universities endorse financial products to impressionable students presents conflicts of interest too troubling to ignore. Advocacy groups, however, are heartened by what some consider a sea change in the campus card marketplace since the 2015 regulations took effect.

Hundreds of colleges and universities have endorsed no-fee and low-fee accounts in the wake of the 2015 regulations. A recent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report found students at most of the 573 colleges it reviewed paid no fees on campus cards in the 2016-17 academic year. Nevertheless, the bureau admonished banks with high fees for not acting in the best financial interest of students.

At a Senate appropriation hearing in March, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos what the department was doing to hold institutions accountable. DeVos said many of the problems in the market would be resolved once the department began issuing its own fee-free debit card for financial aid refunds.

“We have launched a pilot program that will include a debit card for students very clearly delineating the fact that fees cannot be added by the banks that are providing the services,” DeVos said. “We are very keen about this issue and are aware that we need to be ensuring that students are not taken advantage of in that way.”

Vitez cautioned that there are no guarantees that the no-fee guidelines will remain once the pilot period ends or that the department will choose a vendor that keeps students’ needs in mind.

“The Education Department should focus on enforcing the rules already on the books, rather than launching a new national debit card program,” Vitez said. “Our analysis looks at all the contracts listed on the department database and shows that there are some clear areas where they should be focusing their energy instead to protect students.”