Editorial – Higher One: The College Financial Bully

by Josh Kelety

Higher One represents the blatant intrusion of everything wrong about privatization into one of the most holy and important of public services; institutions of higher education and learning. It is a purely profit driven enterprise, preying on some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. To trick and deceive students, particularly those who are working beyond their means to get an academic degree, is abhorrent. It’s like a cruel sibling taking another sibling’s dessert, which was originally given from their mother. The sibling withholds the tasty treat from him, whilst discretely taking large portions of frosting off the top before eventually giving it up only out of a need to avoid persecution. It’s the lowest of the low in the business world’s never-ended quest for profits. In this case the dessert was hard earned and is utterly necessary for the growth and development of the child.

Najwa Alsheikh presents to the Board of Trustees. Photograph by Nate Leese.
Najwa Alsheikh presents to the Board of Trustees. Photograph by Nate Leese.

On May 8th the Seattle Community College Board of Trustees met to attend to some business, including a penetrating presentation on the horrors of Higher One given by Najwa Alsheikh, president of the Seattle Central Associated Student Council. After sitting through numerous passionate voices of discontented Seattle Central faculty (and rightfully so), and passing out awards and plastic pens in an effort to show the Board’s recognition of the Washing Academic Team, Alsheikh laid out the results of a student survey on their experience with Higher One, the private company that handles financial aid disbursements to Seattle Central and Seattle Vocational Institute students.

Higher One operates as a middleman between the giver of financial aid and the student, supposedly giving students a safe and accessible place to store their money and use it at their own discretion. On their brochures they claim to have financial “Solutions designed with you in mind”.

That’s a load of bullshit. They have anything but students in mind when it comes to crafting their policy plan. Not even the national banks that devoured troves of public funds attach the kind of insane customer fees that Higher One appropriates to students.

“A lot of what Higher One marketing tells students is that with Higher One that have ‘options’ or a ‘choice’, but there really is no choice,” said Alsheikh in a text message

The hitch comes when Higher One is forced upon students due to their contracts with college administrations who are trying to clear their own plate and hand off the job of financial aid disbursement to a private entity. And with that comes the plethora of fees and difficulties that Higher One places on students, all in effort to keep their customers ignorant and their wallets fat and heavy.

Such fees include an inactivity fee, a low-balance charge and even a customer service charge if people have questions about the fees the company is prescribing. Students are charged 50 cents to use a Higher One Card pin when making a transaction, $2.50 using another ATM (on top of the individual ATM fee), $20.00 for ordering a new card, and $25.00 per hour to research account activity such as a financial balance statement.

SCCC President Killpatrick listens to speakers. Photograph by Nate Leese.
SCCC President Killpatrick listens to speakers. Photograph by Nate Leese.

On the Seattle Central official website it states that to be eligible for financial aid students must have a Higher One account and card, a requirement that sits alongside GPA standings and the coarse-load. Portland State University similarly uses Higher One as the sole method of financial aid distribution, even combining the Higher One card with a student’s ID card so as to force people to use the system.

“This saves money for the college, but it costs the students money,” Alsheikh added.

The results of the survey were very clear, and reflected similar concerns voiced by students at colleges using Higher One nationwide. The survey showed that a majority of students found the service to be confusing, misleading and devious in it’s excessive attaching of fees and fines to poorly communicated policy violations. A Huffington Post article reported that in 2012 a student at Ventura College California filed a class action lawsuit against Higher One, stating similar claims of deceit and excessive fining.

Students were asked to give written responses to survey questions, and many of them were extremely vocal, dissatisfied and downright outraged. One student said “I was not comfortable allowing an organization to “bank” my refund. My concern is that they are making money with the remains of my refund in a non-interest bearing account. I don’t think they should profit from federal funds.”

Another student expressed significant frustration by saying “I NEVER wanted to give Higher One my banking information. I hate that I was NOT GIVEN A CHOICE.” Almost all of the written responses reflected these responses and feelings towards Higher One.

Others claimed to have had no prior understanding of the Higher One financial aid disbursement options via the college or the company itself. A physical check option does exist but is not openly advertised and requires a fax machine, a piece of machinery that most students along with the Seattle Central campus don’t possess.

The screen of a Higher One ATM at SCCC. Photograph by Josh Kelety.
The screen of a Higher One ATM at SCCC. Photograph by Josh Kelety.

The Board of Trustees listened quietly while Alsheikh presented slide after slide of survey results showing student dissatisfaction. A representative from Higher One sat in the room as well, equally quiet as his company’s villainous mischief was displayed for all to see. When questioned by board members about Higher One’s response to such complaints he stated that the company was working to fix these various issues. One board member commented, “After 13 years of existence, you would think that you guys [Higher One] would have fixed these problems.” The company rep simply smiled as his face turned a slightly darker shade of red.

The proposed solutions by Board Members and Najwa Alsheikh were along the lines of better educating students on Higher One policies so they can better avoid them in the future. There was talk of built-in phones for Higher One ATMs so that students can have a direct line to Higher One customer service. The representative dubbed it the “bat phone.”

However there was no talk that didn’t still include Higher One in the equation. No one asked the question of why Higher One was employed in the first place, nor stated the blatant unjust absurdity of its policies. And considering that Seattle Central has a long-term contract with the private company, it isn’t surprising. The administration has to find a way to make it work now that they’ve dug students into an inescapable hole, a hole that was created without the consultation of the student body in the first place.

The Higher One business plan is very effective and cunning. Put on a face of trustworthiness and security in a time where colleges are grasping at the straws for ways to cut expenses, sign a multiple year contract with academic institutions and siphon off as much money as possible from misled students. Even if students and administrators get organized enough to point out the blatant fraud that is occurring, the dotted contract line has already been signed and dated, leaving schools stuck holding the hands of money-grubbing pigs.

This is austerity and free-market capitalism at their finest.

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