Feds urge transparent bank deals

Lawmakers want colleges to tell more about their bank contracts and to dial down marketing.

Haley Hansen

For students nationwide, the bank tied to their college is as much a part of the campus experience as the bookstore or the sports team.

But that relationship between colleges and banks may soon change, due to federal recommendations for increasing transparency, including requiring schools to share details of their agreements with banks and banning marketing incentives for school-sponsored debit cards.

The idea is that this transparency would help students better weigh the pros and cons of those banking plans.

“It seems that universities need to take a closer look at these agreements to determine whether they are in the best interest of students,” said Rohit Chopra, student loan ombudsman for the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

A February U.S. Government Accountability Office report looked at a sample of large universities in the country and recommended that institutions make their contract information more public so students can have the best possible banking options.

“[Universities] need to disclose more information,” said GAO spokeswoman Alicia Puente Cackley. “And if they’re going to do [student debit cards], they need to do them in a way that doesn’t disadvantage students.”

The University of Minnesota discloses some details about its partnership with TCF Bank online.

According to a University statement, the school is already in line with the proposed guidelines. If federal leaders were to ask for more transparency between students and University-endorsed debit cards, the school would make those necessary changes, according to the statement.

A March proposal from the U.S. Department of Education would require universities to limit how they market debit cards to students. TCF Bank gives sweatshirts to students when they open checking accounts, which the University said it considers a “modest” incentive.

The University’s relationship with TCF Bank is not unique. Several Big Ten schools have similar banking partnerships, allowing students to link their personal checking accounts with their student identification cards.

This isn’t the first time that this kind of transparency has been requested. The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act of 2009 put more restrictions on universities and forced credit card companies to stop offering incentives to students on campus. The act didn’t include marketing for debit cards.

Some lawmakers say the 2009 restrictions didn’t go far enough.

“These agreements look far too similar to the student loan and credit card abuses we cracked down on in the past,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who’s leading the push, said in a statement in February.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., another supporter of increased transparency, expressed a similar sentiment in a statement in February.

“These arrangements often leave students who are already coping with rising education costs even deeper in debt,” he said.

Chopra said while changes need to be made, the agreements between banks and universities to provide debit cards aren’t necessarily harmful.

The GAO report provided recommendations to the U.S. Department of Higher Education, which will likely draft restrictions before next year.