Students Money at Risk

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1 Electronic Refunds Students Money at Risk Submitted by TouchNet Information Systems, Inc. March 18, 2013

2 March 18, 2013 Ms. Monica Jackson Office of the Executive Secretary Consumer Financial Protection Bureau 1700 G Street NW Washington, DC Dear Ms. Jackson: Thank you for this opportunity to respond to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau s ( CFPB s ) Request for Information ( RFI ) regarding Financial Products Marketed to Students Enrolled in Institutions of Higher Education (Docket No. CFPB ). As a payment solutions provider to hundreds of colleges and universities, TouchNet Information Systems, Inc. ( TouchNet ) is in a unique position to observe different business practices used to disburse student financial aid refunds. While we do not currently offer a financial product like those described in your RFI, many of our clients use Direct Deposit to disburse student aid credit balances to students. This model has been highly successful for these schools based upon adoption rates and student satisfaction. TouchNet actively monitors the campus disbursement landscape to determine how industry trends may impact our business and the market in general. It is quite clear to us that many financial service providers are using deceptive marketing tactics to lure students into opening new refundto-debit card accounts that a majority of students do not want or need and then charging multiple fees on these accounts. It becomes more and more apparent that students are at risk. Our comments focus on the relationships between schools and financial service providers and on how certain vendors are using the student refund process to siphon taxpayer dollars These observations were first disclosed in public statements submitted to the U.S. Department of Education during its public hearings on the use of debit cards to disburse Title IV credit balances (May 2012). TouchNet has included an update of these comments as part of our response to your RFI questions. TouchNet encourages the CFPB to take action to stop the deceptive marketing of unnecessary and harmful bank products to students. If the CFPB does not act now, predatory financial service providers will continue to divert taxpayer-funded student aid to their own bottom lines. We look forward to being part of an open dialog with the CFPB to develop a disbursement framework that is both fair to students and beneficial for colleges and universities. Very truly yours, Daniel J. Toughey TouchNet Information Systems, Inc. President

3 BACKGOUND The Growing Disbursemess Overview: Student Aid Refund-To-Debit Card Companies Take Aim at Students Institutions of higher education are required by the U.S. Department of Education to disburse financial aid funds in excess of any student tuition and fees within a 14-day window. This process is cumbersome and costly. To minimize effort and cost, many schools have partnered with banks or other financial service providers to fulfill these obligations. These partnerships are at the core of a growing disbursement problem. First, they give a third-party service provider direct control over hundreds of millions of American taxpayer dollars. Under these arrangements, schools are required to wire all excess financial aid funds to a bank account controlled by the service provider. It is then up to the service provider to ensure these funds are disbursed to the student. College students are a highly sought after target market for banks and financial service providers. As such, these companies are using this new direct marketing channel to aggressively promote financial products to students which are unnecessary and unfair. In many ways, this issue is an extension of the abusive student loan practices of the past, with the problems having simply migrated downstream from the loan origination to the disbursement of financial aid credit balances. The result is that more and more students are opening new bank accounts that they do not need and which carry excessive and unclear fee schedules. These business practices have not gone unnoticed. Students, advocacy groups, and various consumer protection organizations have organized protests, raised concerns through the media, and in some cases, filed law suits. As a result, the Department of Education, the CFPB, members of the U.S. Congress, and others have begun investigating the business practices of student-aid-to-debit card companies. It is time for action. It is time for the development and enforcement of a new set of guidelines to limit unsavory business practices and aggressive marketing tactics aimed at college campuses. We need to help students make the right choice when selecting how to receive their student aid credit balances and help colleges and universities understand the financial impact of these programs on their students. 1

4 Exploitation of a Trusted Relationship An unfortunate side effect of campus partnerships with third-party service providers to disburse student refunds is the opening of a new marketing channel to aggressively and deceptively promote financial products to unsuspecting students. Colleges and universities share a special relationship with their students, starting at the moment the student chooses to attend their school. Students are mostly young and trusting and look to their school for guidance as they embark on achieving a college degree. Financial service providers are using this special relationship to increase their own profits. They interject themselves into the relationship of mutual benefit between schools and students by leveraging the school s colors, logos, and brand to sway the student s choice of financial aid disbursement instruments. Leveraging the school s brand is an important component of a financial service provider s marketing strategy. A student receiving debit cards in the mail believes that the card carries the school s endorsement as the preferred method of disbursing funds by the school. This inferred endorsement pushes most students to activate the card, even if the student has an existing bank account. Many schools with these programs see adoption rates of these cards reach 70% or more on campus. If you removed the campus branding from these cards, the success rate would be much lower and fewer students would open an unnecessary bank account. It is this excessive and deceptive promotion which puts students at risk and leads to the next big problem with the outsourced bank refund model. Exploitation of the Student s Need for Financial Aid Beyond the implied university endorsement, students are choosing to open new debit card accounts because of the promise of how quickly their financial aid refunds will be disbursed to these accounts. Students are told that by opening a new debit card account they can receive their financial aid money the same day their school releases those funds to the service provider. Alternatively, students are told it would take two to three business days for them to receive a direct deposit to an existing bank account. The real issue is that a direct deposit transaction takes only one or two business days to settle and most are settled on the next day. Some vendors justify the added time for direct deposit that they are quoting by pointing to the time it takes for the school to wire funds to the service provider s bank account. This is an unnecessary delay. The more efficient way to implement direct deposit would be to transmit the funding directly from the school s account. Creation of Unnecessary Obstacles to Receiving Non-Debit Card Disbursement Students select their preferred refund method on the service provider s website. The service provider makes it very simple for the student to activate the debit card and make it the default option for receiving funds from the school. Those students that want an alternative disbursement method find additional obstacles that they must overcome in order to receive their financial aid money. These involve paper-based processes invoked to make the alternate selection unattractive. For example, certain vendors require students seeking to receive their financial aid through direct deposit to print a form (very similar to a standard direct deposit form) and fax the completed document back to the service provider. 2

5 Steering Drives Up Adoption Rate of Refund Debit Card Accounts The use of implied school endorsements, promise of faster refunds, and creation of unnecessary obstacles to choosing non-debit card disbursement options are artificially driving adoption rates of refund debit cards up to 70% on many campuses. This adoption rate is disproportionate as compared to the number of unbanked students on campuses. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation ( FDIC ) released a study ( 2011 FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households ) that found that 92% of American households maintain a bank account. Further, this study found that only one-fourth of the remaining unbanked households represent an education beyond high school. Based on the FDIC report, it is clear to us that the vast majority of students arrive on campus with an existing bank account. Another report completed much more recently, Money Matters on Campus, was funded by a financial service provider that offers a disbursement product to colleges and universities. Their study shows that 86% of incoming freshmen have an existing bank account. Ironically, this financial service provider is one of those which uses deceptive steering tactics discussed above to solicit new student accounts and has touted the high adoption rate of their card program on campus. However, if 86% or more of college students already have bank accounts, then there is no free market rationale for why 70% of students would open new accounts associated with new debit cards (let alone debit cards that have aggressive fee schedules). Debit Card Adoption Rates of Other Federal Disbursement Processes An easy comparison to the student aid refund disbursement process is the U.S. Treasury Department s Go Direct program. Due to the success of the Go Direct initiative, 93% of social security and other benefit payments are made electronically. The 93% number includes direct deposit transactions to existing bank accounts, as well as the Go Direct prepaid debit card program. A major difference between the Treasury Department and student aid disbursement programs is that, in the Treasury program, users are given an equal opportunity to receive their payment either through a direct deposit to an existing account or via the prepaid debit card option. As expected, according to a July 2012 Treasury Department press release, the approximate adoption rate for the Go Direct prepaid debit card is about 6% of all beneficiary recipients. Steering by certain financial service providers is causing the disparity between the percentage of consumers that are opening new debit card accounts to receive financial aid refunds and the percentage of consumers that are opening new debit card accounts to receive payments through other national programs. Based on the Go Direct example described above, we would recommend that institutions of higher education re-evaluate their refund disbursement programs if students are choosing direct deposits to existing bank accounts less than 50% of the time, or if students are choosing disbursements to new bank accounts/debit cards more than 50% of the time. 3

6 Harvesting Taxpayer Money Students want to receive their financial aid money as fast as possible. In many cases, students need this money to pay for essentials, such as books, rent or other living expenses. Unfortunately, many students quickly choose the refund debit card/bank account to get their money fast and do not take the time to examine the fee schedules or to read and comprehend the 30 pages of terms and conditions before agreeing to activate a card. The fact is, it is hard for students to locate all the fees related to the debit card/account. Further, even once such fees are located, it is difficult for students to understand and compare fee schedules associated with card programs. It is important that schools know how much students are really paying for the benefits promised by these outsourced financial service providers. Too many students have selected a new debit card/account only to later learn first-hand about the costs associated with these accounts. As an example, one financial service provider offers three different fee schedules/card programs from which students can choose. Each program is listed on a separate web page, making it difficult for a student to compare side by side. Making the issue more difficult is the fact that students, or adults for that matter, rarely understand their usage patterns with a bank account. Instead of simply listing ambiguously named fees, financial service providers should provide students (and schools) with an average annual cost based on typical usage patterns. This wiykd a student to have a clear understanding of what an account will cost at the time that they are making the decision of whether to open the account. This same service provider has publically disclosed that its student refund debit card generates an average of $48 per year in fees. When you consider these fees in the context of the campus population, it is clear that these financial service providers are realizing significant profits from students. Consider, for example, a college campus of about 10,000 students that uses a financial service provider to disburse student refunds. If 6,000 of these students receive some form of financial aid refund and 70% of students receiving aid have been steered to debit cards as a disbursement method, we can estimate that those 4,200 students represent $201,600 in revenue per year for this financial service provider. Even if the school is required to pay $.50 per transaction to add funds to those cards ($2,100 per refund cycle, students will be paying the brunt of disbursement costs. Compare that to a direct deposit ACH transaction. An ACH transaction averages a cost of $.10 or less. If the school processed all 6,000 refunds via direct deposit, its cost would be $600 per refund period. More important, students would not pay additional fees for receiving their financial aid refunds via direct deposit. The Impact of Junk Fees Some would argue the $48 per year that students pay for their refund debit cards is a fair price for a bank account. However, the reality is that 86% or more of college students have an existing bank account and are subsidizing the cost of a refund program for schools through unnecessary fees tied to unnecessary accounts. A quick review of a bank-affiliated student financial aid refund providers fee schedule will often identify excessive and unnecessary fees, also referred to as junk fees. Two prime examples of junk fees in the student financial aid refund market are out of network ATM fees and account inactivity fees. 4

7 Out of network ATM fees are not uncommon with bank accounts. The difference in the student financial aid refund market is ATM availability. Many financial service providers place an in-network ATM on campus to meet the requirements of Title IV. However, these ATMs are often in locations that are not accessible at all times or have infrequent service calls during peak activity periods (right after aid disbursement) and easily run out of cash. This forces students to venture off campus (and often out of network) for alternative ATM locations. One student complaint related to ATM access described a situation where an out-of-state student was forced to pay multiple out-of-network fees to access their funds because the only in-network ATM was on campus, but inaccessible. Inactivity fees are a common feature of many debit card programs. An inactivity fee is used to reduce the balance associated with an account until it reaches $0.00, allowing the financial service provider to close the account. However, in the student financial aid refund industry this fee represents a significant revenue opportunity for the financial service provider, especially when you consider the fee can be as high as $10.00 per month and charged after only six months of inactivity. That means students not using a card for a few months at the end of a school year begin losing money before heading home for the summer. These inactivity fees are similar to those once associated with gift cards. However, those gift card fees have since been eliminated. There are other common fees often hidden within student refund debit card programs. Examples of these include: $0.50 per PIN-based transaction at the point of sale these are the fastest growing type of point of sale transaction. Students are required to pay $0.50 transaction because the financial service provider is not able to collect as much interchange on these transactions. These are free with most standard bank accounts. $29.00 to $38.00 for overdraft students are encouraged to track their balance but are not able to configure their account to reject transactions which would overdraw their account. $20.00 for card replacement. When these cards are used primarily for receiving refunds and put in the drawer in between refund cycles, it s easy for students to lose. Conclusion It Is Time for Federal Action The problem in the student financial aid refund industry is obvious. Millions of students are being coerced into using banking products they do not need or want. These accounts have proven to be highly profitable for a select group of financial service providers because of unreasonable and unclear fee structures, a lack of competition, and a captive and highly vulnerable target audience. If these financial service providers were forced into an open market environment, like the Go Direct example above, many would find it extremely difficult to compete (much less be profitable) against equal competition from banks that are more interested in developing and maintaining a long-term relationship with students. The business practices of certain financial service providers are causing the disbursement mess that is harming students and depleting U.S. financial aid. It is time for the federal government to step in and protect students from these predatory practices, enable schools to help students to make the right financial choices, and stop financial service providers from taking advantage of students. 5

8 4 for IV: edisbursements Framework Student Friendly School Savvy In March of 2012, TouchNet introduced our 4 for IV edisbursements Framework. These recommendations were originally submitted to the U.S. Department of Education as part of our public comments regarding student disbursement practices. The underlying goal for schools is to electronically disburse 100% of Title IV refunds. Direct Deposit remains the low-cost foundation for a successful electronic disbursement program, as it serves the majority of students today. The addition of bank products, like a debit card option, would create a comprehensive solution for reaching the 100% objective. However, bank products can only be offered by financial institutions and their marketing partners and these parties must understand the special relationship between students and their institutions of higher education. To protect students and schools, banking and other financial products should be offered under a set of guidelines established for their use within a college s or university s electronic disbursement program. Below are the basic tenants of the 4 for IV edisbursements Framework as it applies to bank products used in the disbursement of credit balance of Title IV funds. 1. Make Direct Deposit the First Choice, Not the Hard Choice According to an FDIC study, 92% of American households have a bank account. Direct deposit should be the optimal disbursement option for the great majority of students. Unfortunately, some financial service providers make students print and mail or fax paper to opt into a direct deposit disbursement method. The result is that students are steered into agreeing to unwanted and unneeded bank products. 2. Restrict Student Marketing by Financial Service Firms For the small percentage of students who are truly unbanked, banking products offered by third party service providers for financial aid disbursements may be attractive. However, third-party service providers should not be allowed to market directly to students on campus using school logos. Nor should schools share student s personally identifiable information with third party service providers or imply endorsements by co-branding financial products. Today, students on campuses are often carpet bombed with product offerings and deluged with predatory marketing tactics. Third party service providers should adhere to the same requirements of the CARD Act that pertains to marketing credit cards to students under age 21, especially on campus. 3. Eliminate Debit Card Junk Fees and Fully Disclose Fees Upfront The majority of debit cards and bank accounts issued to students through third-party service providers are laden with hidden fees and junk fees. Fees should be required to be disclosed in the same fashion as the CARD Act mandates for credit cards. This would simplify the student s ability to compare costs between disbursement options. This disclosure should also go as far as showing students an annual cost for using the program based on average activity on the card. Doing so would 6

9 also help schools to more clearly understand the cost and to make more educated decisions when selecting card programs to offer on campus. Beyond more clearly disclosing fees, the list of what fees are charged should be revised. Today, one service provider charges students an inactivity fee of $10/month after only six months of nonusage. They also charge students $.50 per PIN transaction at the point of sale. Both are examples of junk fees costing students an excessive amount of money to manage their financial aid dollars, further exacerbating the overwhelming effect of student loan debt on those students. 4. Eliminate Exclusivity for Bank Products Long-term exclusive contracts between Third-Party Servicers and institutions are common. However, such exclusive contracts are disadvantageous for students. New, lower-cost and more equitable debit card disbursement options will become available over time. However, for schools to benefit from these new products and offer competitive bank products to their students, they will need the flexibility to switch to new Third Party Services as they become available.. Taken together, these four tenets provide a practical, principled and balanced framework for the CFPB to protect the integrity of the financial aid system. 7

10 RESPONSE TO RFI QUESTIONS 1. Products marketed through campus affinity relationships a. What types of campus affinity products are being offered to students (e.g., financial aid disbursement accounts, student banking, prepaid cards, and credit cards)? TouchNet offers colleges the software that gives students the option to have financial aid disbursements sent directly to an existing bank account via direct deposit. Those students without an account or that fail to sign up for direct deposit are mailed a paper check. b. What are the features of these campus affinity products (e.g., online bill pay, mobile check deposit)? TouchNet software gives students the options to receive funds by direct deposit or by paper check. c. In what ways are campus-affiliated products marketed to students (e.g., included in campus admissions and/or financial aid offer letters, orientation materials, advertising at college sporting events)? Marketing for direct deposit is done by the individual institution. This is typically done during campus orientation, through mailers, or ads in the campus paper. d. What information about students is provided by institutions of higher education to financial institutions (e.g., address, date of birth, program of study)? No information is given by the institution to TouchNet prior to the disbursement of a refund. Students choosing to sign up for direct deposit provide their bank routing and account number and the account type (checking or savings). To fulfill paper checks, the school provides a print file that includes the student name, student ID, and mailing address. e. How are card or other products offered to students (e.g., mandatory, opt-out, opt-in)? Does the student have a choice to decline the product? If so, what steps are required to exercise that choice? Are there any consequences to the student for declining the product? Students are given a choice to sign up for direct deposit. However, many schools require students to sign up for direct deposit in order to receive funds. Those schools only use paper checks as a last resort for distributing funds. f. What percentage of students at a college or university use the affinity product (e.g., financial aid disbursement, student checking accounts)? What percentage of financial aid recipients use the affinity product? Many TouchNet customers have seen adoption rates for direct deposit in the 80% to 95% range. These schools actively promote direct deposit to students, and often require students to sign up for 8

11 the service. Other campuses have seen direct deposit adoption rates in the 50% to 60% range. These campuses often focus less on marketing and allow students to find the service online without promotion or requirement to do so. g. To what extent are students able to choose a product other than the affinity banking product associated with the institution of higher education? What percentage of students do so? Students are able to pick the banking product which best meets their needs from any local or national financial institution. h. What types of fees are being charged in association with these products (e.g., overdraft and/or swipe fees)? What are the typical fee amounts? What are the terms and conditions of these products? i. To what extent are students able or not able to readily access funds from affinity products while on campus? Does the financial institution provide multiple ATMs? Where are those ATMs located (e.g., on campus, near campus)? Are ATMs also located on branch campuses? Do ATMs charge fees for withdrawal? If so, what are the fees and how are they assessed? Students may access funds using the ATM network associated with their bank account. j. What is the nature, number, and frequency of complaints related to these campus affinity products? Please do not include account numbers, Social Security numbers or other personal information that could be used to reveal personally identifiable information. Neither TouchNet nor our customers have ever received a complaint about our direct deposit program. k. Please describe the student experience in contacting the providers of campus affinity products with questions, errors, concerns, and complaints. What level of service do students receive? Have students been treated in a fair, clear, and timely manner? Please provide examples. Neither TouchNet nor our customers have ever received a complaint about our direct deposit program. l. What challenges do institutions of higher education face when setting up these agreements? m. What terms do institutions of higher education agree to when they affiliate with a financial institution to offer students financial products and services? Please feel free to submit copies of any specific affinity agreements. Please ensure that any specific agreements do not contain any personally identifiable information. 9

12 TouchNet requires our customers to sign a standard software licensing agreement for use of our direct deposit product. For those customers choosing to use our check printing service, there is a simple service agreement contract. There are no agreements between TouchNet and individual students. n. What types of limitations, if any, do these affinity agreements include with respect to the fees that will be charged to student users of the products? TouchNet does not charge fees to students. o. What additional information would have been helpful to the institution of higher education before setting up an affinity agreement? While TouchNet does not offer an affinity program, we do encourage schools to evaluate a variety of banking programs and to offer multiple options to students. p. How much revenue do institutions of higher education generally receive annually in connection with these agreements? How does that revenue break down between student checking accounts, credit cards and other products and services? Is the revenue based on a per student basis, by number and/or volume of transactions by students, level of student account balances, fee revenue, or other measures? TouchNet does not charge the student to receive funds via direct deposit or paper check. The majority of our revenue comes from software licensing agreements with the school. q. Does an institution of higher education save in operating costs or generate revenue by contracting with a financial aid disbursement vendor? If so, in what amounts? Yes. By pushing students to use direct deposit, schools can save thousands of dollars annually by eliminating paper checks. Many schools estimated the cost to issue a check somewhere between $5.00 and $15.00, while an ACH direct deposit transactions is less than $0.10 per transaction. r. What are best practices or model terms for institutions that are looking to set up and/or renegotiate an agreement with financial institutions to offer products and services? TouchNet does not believe schools need to have arrangements s. What types of incentives do affinity agreements offer institutions of higher education? t. What types of incentives, if any, do students receive for choosing an affinity product? Students that choose direct deposit receive funds more quickly than through traditional mail. u. To what extent do institutions of higher education solicit requests for proposal for affinity agreements? What are some examples of an institution s request for proposal? 10

13 v. Do institutions of higher education provide access to campus property to financial institutions in order to market products or provide workshops? w. To what extent are financial products bundled with student ID cards? What percentage of students utilize these bundled financial products (e.g., a student ID card that doubles as a debit card, or closed-loop meal card accepted by local business)? Are there any charges or fees associated with the use of the bundled financial product? If yes, how are they assessed? x. To what extent are affinity financial products also bundled with financial education programs? What is the utilization of these education programs and how does it affect student behavior? y. How do campus affinity products compare with banking products available to college students that are offered by financial institutions not affiliated with the institution of higher education? 11

14 2. Other financial products marketed to students a. What types of financial products are tailored to the student consumer segment? b. What factors do students and parents consider when choosing financial products tailored for students? Which are the most important factors? c. What type of information is helpful in making that decision? d. How do financial institutions market these products to students and parents? Do financial institutions purchase enrollment information from third parties? Do financial institutions engage marketing consultants who specialize in the student consumer segment? e. What types of discounts and benefits are offered to students who sign up for a student banking account? f. What percentage of students sign up for student banking from banks and credit unions that are located on or in close proximity to the campus? g. What types of issues/complaints do students/parents have with these accounts? h. On average, how much does a student pay in fees per year? TouchNet does not charge fees to students. i. Which fees do students get charged most often? j. What are the features of the different types of financial products and services that banks and credit unions offer to students? Are these financial products marketed as free checking for students? 12

15 k. What restrictions do consumers need to satisfy in order to qualify for the student banking product or services? For example, does a student need to be enrolled in school full time or attend a particular institution? How is a student s status verified (e.g., student ID, transcript, notice of enrollment)? l. Are the terms and conditions of student banking products (including, for example, amount and frequency of fees or penalties) clearly disclosed, disclosed in a timely manner, and easy to understand? Have students had difficulty understanding and/or complying with these terms and conditions? Please provide examples. m. What percentage of student accounts have parents and/or family members as co-signers or joint account holders? n. To what extent do students use general purpose reloadable cards? How do institutions of higher education and financial institutions market these cards to students? o. How many students opt in to overdraft coverage? p. Do students usually sign up for their new account online or through a live interaction? However, TouchNet does offer online self-service access for enrollment in our direct deposit program. q. How many student account holders do financial institutions serve? r. What percentage of students maintain an account or relationship with the financial institution after graduation or separation from college? After a student graduates or separates from college how does their relationship with their financial institution change (e.g., do they sign up for additional products and services)? 13

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