Oregon students protest Higher One at Portland symposium
By Taya Alami
Students from a number of colleges and universities staged a quick protest against Higher One on the campus of Portland State University on Feb. 22.
The 20-minute protest began at 6:30 p.m. in the Smith Memorial Student Union Building at Portland State’s main campus.
ASLCC Campus Community Director John Price said protesters hoped images from the brief rally, fueled by the fees charged by Higher One and a lack of alternatives for students, would go viral.
“Community college students and (students at) other four-year institutions don’t have another option when it comes to how their financial aid is being distributed, so they’re literally being forced to be taken advantage of by this third-party banking company known as Higher One,” Price said.
In a Feb. 4 interview, Higher One client relations specialist Lauren Perry said students with Higher One debit cards are required to acknowledge the bank’s fee schedule.
“We have a lot of transparency that’s very straightforward and educational when it comes to the disclosure of our fees,” Perry said. “We want to make sure students are aware of certain fees students might incur because of certain behaviors prior to choosing that optional checking account that Higher One offers. But that’s just one option for them. If they have a banking relationship with a local credit union or a national bank, the choice is there for it go into that account as well.”
Perry said Higher One’s practices are similar to those of comparable banks and also fall in line with federal requirements.
“It’s always free. Students will never be charged to receive 100 percent of their money,” Perry said. “That’s required by the Department of Education.”
The protest coincided with the Oregon Student Association’s annual conference, the Northwest Student Leadership Symposium, also at Portland State’s main campus.
OSA Executive Committee Chairwoman Alexandra Flores-Quilty said the students representing all of Oregon’s public universities and community colleges — as well as students from Idaho, Washington, Alaska and Quebec — are attending the symposium.
“I’m pretty sure there’s participation (in this protest) from every school that’s present,” Flores-Quilty said.
Students across the country have also organized similar efforts in hopes to reform student-lending practices.
“Lane Community College and Portland State University have been the leading schools in Oregon. We’ve been doing a lot of work on this,” Flores-Quilty said.
Lane students testified before the Oregon House Consumer Protection and Efficiency Committee in a Feb. 4 hearing about Oregon H.B. 4102.
In its introductory form, the bill would alter the business model for financiers like Higher One, the finance company that acts as a middle-man between the federal lenders and Lane’s student borrowers. It would prevent financial firms from deducting charges, fees and other administrative costs from the accounts the financial firm manages.
The bill would also forbid colleges and universities from entering into contracts with firms that fail to meet new standards.
Higher One has long been criticized by students for charging fees for non-credit transactions, ATM fees and overdrafts. Students with Higher One cards are charged 50 cents per debit transaction, while credit transactions that require a signature are fee-free.
Portland State student government President Harris Foster helped organize the Feb. 22 rally. He said student leaders took action after receiving a high number of complaints from students about Higher One’s practices.
“Students are being forced to use a bank that is not on the free market. They wouldn’t otherwise use it,” Foster said. “I call that extortion.”
Foster’s cabinet’s first initiative after he took office in 2013 was to work towards renegotiating the university’s contract with the Connecticut-based financial firm.
Students have been working with the Consumer Protection Bureau to help change national regulations, he said.
Last year, Higher One reached a $15 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by students. The settlement also mandated a change in the bank’s business practices.
(News Editor J. Wolfgang Wool contributed to this report.)