Bucks, the personal finance blog of The New York Times, has published an entry on the Higher One financial services company and its controversial deals with colleges. In case readers missed it, Higher One was the flashpoint of one of FIRE’s recent high-profile cases, after Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) student Marc Bechtol faced a two-semester suspension for criticizing the North Carolina college’s partnership with the organization on Facebook.
Here’s how Bucks describes Higher One:
The New Haven, Conn., company partners with roughly 700 campuses across the country to handle payments to students. Colleges contract with Higher One to handle payments, such as grants and student aid "refunds," which are funds left over after tuition is paid and are typically used for textbooks and other education-related costs. Students can receive a debit card and activate the account linked to it, to quickly access their funds. In some cases, the cards also serve as the student’s college I.D. card.
Higher One has not always been popular with the student community, as Bechtol’s case illustrates. Bucks nicely sums up his run-in with the CVCC administration:
In the North Carolina incident, a student, Marc Bechtol, complained about Higher One in a September post on the Facebook page maintained by his school, Catawba Valley Community College, in Hickory, N.C. Mr. Bechtol said he made the post because shortly after his school mailed him his Higher One card, which doubles as a student identification card even if it isn’t activated, he received a marketing solicitation from a credit card company….
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that advocates for free speech on campus, the post said, "Did anyone else get a bunch of credit card spam in their CVCC inbox today? So, did CVCC sell our names to banks, or did Higher One? I think we should register CVCC’s address with every porn site known to man. Anyone know any good viruses to send them?" He then added, "O.K., maybe that would be a slight overreaction," according to FIRE.
Mr. Bechtol said in a telephone interview that he objected to the school’s use of an outside financial firm and to the firm’s heavy marketing to students, many of whom were young and unsophisticated about banking. "It was obviously in jest," he said of his post.
In a letter to Mr. Bechtol posted on FIRE’s Web site, the school told him the post was "disturbing and indicates possible malicious action against the college," and that he would be suspended for two semesters. A spokeswoman for the college, Mary Reynolds, said in a phone interview that it was Mr. Bechtol’s apparent threat that led it to act: "We were responding to a potential threat to our operations," she said.
Mr. Bechtol appealed, however, and the school dropped the suspension.
Indeed, CVCC did drop Bechtol’s punishment—but only after FIRE made a national spectacle of its outrageous overreaction to Bechtol’s fully protected speech (problems still remain, however). And as Bucks notes, students at Western Washington University (site of another recent FIRE case) have been taking their grievances with Higher One to Facebook as well.
FIRE, of course, doesn’t have any position on the fees or practices of Higher One. Its business only becomes FIRE’s business when college students face punishment at their universities for voicing their opposition to it (or their support for it, for that matter). Thanks to The New York Times for bringing further attention to this case.