Colleges Offer Substandard Financial Services to Students, Report Finds

Colleges Offer Substandard Financial Services to Students, Report Finds
Photo by Wes Hicks / Unsplash

Many colleges offer financial services to their students that carry “junk fees” and terms that are no better, or even worse, than terms available on the open market, according a report released today by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

“Many college students trust that schools have their best interests in mind. While colleges have substantial bargaining power to obtain superior terms and pricing for their students, we find that many college-sponsored financial products cost students more than accounts that are readily available on the open market.” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra.

“Today’s report suggests that there is more work to do to ensure that students are not steered into school-endorsed products with junk fees. We will continue to work with the Department of Education to help students find the best possible products,” Chopra said in a news release.

The report raises questions about whether some marketing deals between colleges and financial institutions comply with Department of Education rules. The report also highlights a lack of transparency in the arrangements schools have made with financial institutions.

In conjunction with the release of the report, the Department of Education issued guidance to schools on requirements for college-sponsored banking arrangements and committed to additional oversight on this issue.

Hundreds of colleges and universities partner with financial institutions to offer credit cards, debit accounts and other services. These partnerships often claim to support students’ financial health. However, the products marketed to students are often more costly than what students might otherwise find in the market, the report found.

Key findings

The CFPB’s review included data on 11 account providers, including non-bank financial service providers, banks, and credit unions offering more than 650,000 student accounts in partnership with 462 institutions of higher education during the 2020-2021 Award Year. Among the CFPB’s key findings:

  • Financial services providers and their partner schools appear to offer and promote more costly products to students than are otherwise available in the market: Students are subject to direct marketing efforts that promote accounts that impose more costs than comparable accounts – even comparable accounts offered by the same financial services provider. Some providers’ agreements with schools allow them charge students five overdraft or NSF penalties, per day, costing $175.
  • One entity dominates the market for financial aid disbursements, providing nearly 70% of the accounts offered in partnership with schools—and imposes surprise monthly fees: Under this provider, accountholders are charged monthly service fees on accounts with less than $300 in qualifying deposits per month, but financial aid disbursements that may comprise the bulk of a student’s deposits do not count as qualifying deposits. Of the $15 million in annual costs paid by students in the CFPB’s sample, nearly $13 million was paid to this provider.
  • Many students are directed to lists of account options that do not appear to meet Department of Education requirements: Under Department of Education regulations, students must be allowed to select the way they receive their financial aid from a neutral list, and cannot be coerced into selecting college-sponsored products under threat that their financial aid disbursements will be delayed if they choose non-sponsored accounts.  The CFPB identified instances where students were told that financial aid payments might not be as timely if students didn’t choose a college-sponsored account.
  • Many agreements between financial institutions and colleges do not appear to be posted prominently as required: Nearly 30% of accounts in the CFPB’s sample were subject to arrangements in which the financial services provider made payments to the partner school. Schools are required to post on their websites the agreements they have with financial services providers, any compensation exchanged between them, and the average costs paid by students. These disclosures help make the terms of the college-bank relationship transparent, but the CFPB’s review found that hundreds of schools did not appear to have posted the disclosures in the public and conspicuous manner required.

Education Department response

Responding to the report, the Department of Education today issued guidance clarifying schools’ responsibility to ensure that campus financial products are consistent with students’ best financial interests, including by reviewing whether any fees assessed are consistent with or below prevailing market rates. This guidance discusses overdraft and NSF fees, given that financial institutions in the general market have increasingly been reducing or eliminating certain fees.

The Department also announced that it will take steps to enhance enforcement of its cash management regulations by tracking new data and bringing on additional staff to conduct oversight of college banking arrangements.

Read today’s annual report to Congress, College banking and credit card agreements.

Consumers, including college students, can submit complaints about credit card, prepaid, or debit accounts, and about other products and services, by visiting the CFPB’s website or by calling (855) 411-CFPB (2372). In 2015, the CFPB published a consumer advisory warning advising students that they do not need to choose the financial product endorsed by their school.