Merced College to stick with financial aid firm – for now

07/30/2014 8:10 PM

07/30/2014 8:10 PM

Merced College will continue to offer its financial aid through an outside agency despite some complaints. However, the school is lining up a survey to gather student opinion on the service.

The board of trustees agreed during summer 2013 to a contract to pay $5,000 a year to Higher One, a company that handles the disbursement of financial aid money to college students. Those receiving financial aid can open an account, have their money deposited into an account or receive a check in the mail from Higher One.

After faculty and students spoke out against Higher One at a trustee meeting in February, the trustees asked school staff to conduct a survey to gather opinions. That survey was originally to be complete before the next round of cash went out to students.

The school did not meet that deadline, as financial aid goes out Aug. 14, according to the college’s website.

Dennis Jordan, the board president who represents Area 4, said he is waiting on the survey results before he makes up his mind on Higher One, but would consider canceling the contract with the company if students prefer that.

Those who take issue with Higher One have complained about fees charged for swiping the card or making other transactions, as well as the extra time it takes to receive a check if students opt out of the prepaid card.

Higher One users pay $49 per year on average in fees, according to the company. For example, the OneAccount Edge charges a monthly $4.95 fee.

Another account, OneAccount, charges $2.50 for non-Higher One ATM swipes and 50 cents any time the card is used with a PIN. There are no fees for transactions in which the user signs as though it were a credit card.

Joanne Schultz, Merced College vice president of administrative services, said the school has completed a first draft of a survey but is awaiting input from the Associated Students of Merced College. “We were not able to get the students together before the end of the term last year,” she said.

In its current draft, she said, the survey will not only look for student opinions but also will compare particular demographics. For example, how students who once received a check and now use the Higher One card feel compared with those who have only used the card.

The contract with Higher One was inked for three years with room for two years of extensions, Schultz said.

School staff is looking at distributing a survey two weeks after the new semester starts, pending approval from the student government. Follow-up surveys could also be used, Schultz said.

Cindy Lashbrook, trustee for Area 1, said it’s in the college’s best interests to conduct the survey as soon as possible. She said the initial deadline may have been unrealistic.

She expressed some doubts about staying with the company, saying the college should at least give students other banking options. “I’d rather have them dealing with local banks that are hiring local people,” she said.

Some students have complained about the unequal promise to deliver money. Higher One offers to deposit the money to one of its accounts the same day it’s available, but students with their own accounts must wait two to three business days and those who want a check must wait five to seven business days.

Before entering into a contract with Higher One, the college offered checks on the same day they became available, assuming students were willing to wait in line.

Lashbrook said the delay caused under Higher One could lead students to opt for the card because they need the money right away.

One student, Kyle Summerfield, expressed his opposition to Higher One during a board of trustees meeting in February. He took an extra step to avoid the company for the coming semester.

The 27-year-old from Mariposa said he so strongly opposed Higher One that he declined to take the financial aid he’s been able to use in past semesters. Thus he’s had to limit the number of units he takes, he said.

Forcing students to interact with a corporation is “unethical,” he said. “It’s just not healthy for the educational system, it’s not healthy for the students.”

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