Whatcom outsources financial aid payouts

Story by Taylor Nichols

Photo by Andrew Edwards
Photo by Andrew Edwards

Photos of green envelopes sent from a financial firm called Higher One have been posted around Whatcom Community College’s campus since spring, and they represent a change in the way financial aid works for Whatcom students.

Higher One is a business separate from the college contracted to handle the distribution of financial aid money to students for colleges and universities across the country. Whatcom has officially made the change to use this firm to disburse financial aid money to students during summer quarter.

“Financial aid is becoming more and more of a big deal, because college is getting more and more expensive,” said Ken Bronstein, director for Business and Finance at Whatcom, “and more and more of our students are on financial aid as a result.”

In years past, Whatcom’s own Business Office disbursed financial aid granted to students. Any money granted to a student is first applied to their tuition, and then funds which could be used for things such as textbooks, food and living expenses, were given to students in the form of a check from the college.

Bronstein said that under the old system, four employees spent at least one full day each quarter distributing all the financial aid checks. “Now, it’s a much quicker, cleaner process.”

Although most of this money is given out at the beginning of each quarter, Bronstein said that funding is disbursed all quarter.
David Klaffke, interim financial aid director at Whatcom, said that just under $7 million were granted in Pell grants and $6 million were given out in student loans during the 2012-13 school year.

The switch to Higher One means students will see changes in the way they receive their financial aid. Students are now able to choose to receive their funds by check, which takes three to five business days; a direct deposit into their bank account, which takes one to two business days; or by using a Whatcom Choice Card, which has no waiting period.
The Whatcom Choice Card is “where all the controversy is,” Bronstein said.

All students receiving financial aid will get the Whatcom Choice Card in the mail. Bronstein said students are not required to use this card, which can be used as a regular debit or credit card, but must go online and use the card number to select which form of payment they prefer.

If a student chooses to use the card, they will have a bank account with Higher One, called the OneAccount. Their financial aid money will be deposited into this account, which can be used as a checking account.
Students will be able to do things such as pay bills online, withdraw up to $200 daily, access their account online or with a smartphone, and transfer money between OneAccounts.

“It’s really the future of banking,” Bronstein said. “Electronically, they’re very advanced.”

Although this method of financial aid disbursement can be more convenient for both students and Whatcom staff, “students need to be smart about how they use this card,” Bronstein said. If students choose to use the OneAccount, they should make themselves aware of the fees they could incur, he added.

These fees include a 50-cent charge if the card is used as a debit card and a PIN number is punched in, a $2.50 charge for using an ATM other than a Higher One ATM, and an insufficient funds fee of $29 for the first charge and $38 for any incurred thereafter.

A complete list of fees can be found on Higher One’s website.
Bronstein said students can avoid these fees by using their card as a credit card and signing instead of using a PIN number, as well as using only Higher One ATMs. These can be found on the campuses of Whatcom, Western Washington University, and Bellingham Technical College.

Key decision-makers at Whatcom including Bronstein and Vice President for Administrative Services Nate Langstraat, chose Higher One to handle Whatcom’s financial aid disbursement after gathering information about the firm and consulting other colleges who already use Higher One.
Bronstein said that he originally did not support the choice to start using Higher One.

“I was the biggest skeptic on this campus, and I think they’re doing a very good job,” he said. “I’m very pleased.”

Whatcom student Amy Yi said that using her Whatcom Choice Card is convenient for her.

“Before I had to go to financial aid for every question, but now I can go to the machine and check my balance,” she said. “I have an extra resource.”

While the ease of access will benefit students, “there is a downside to Higher One, and that’s where we’re getting questions,” Bronstein said.
Higher One was previously under scrutiny from students, colleges and universities, state legislators and Congress for the lack of transparency in their fee policies.

“They had a reputation for charging a lot of fees on their OneAccounts, so students were paying for the privilege of using this,” he said. “They had gotten a lot of bad publicity from campuses all over the country.”
One of these campuses was Western. When the university began using Higher One in 2011, students protested the change with a demonstration.

“Students were unhappy, they complained and got some action,” Bronstein said.

Higher One changed some of its fee policies as a result of these and other protests, including a lawsuit filed against Higher One in 2012 by a student at Ventura College in California. The lawsuit resulted in the firm issuing $11 million in refunds to students.
These measures proved to the decision-making team at Whatcom that Higher One was the best choice.

“They’ve changed their practices,” Bronstein said. “Their fee schedule, available on their website, had changed, and the company was obviously trying to be more transparent in how they charged fees.”

During the first week of school, a Whatcom Choice Card Support Center will be set up in Syre 107-108 for students who have questions or concerns about their Whatcom Choice Card.

Bronstein said that more than 1,000 cards had been distributed to students during summer quarter, and that most students did not need help with them.

“It went well overall,” he said.

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