Oct. 14, 2011 at 3:49 PM ET
A North Carolina community college student who was banned from campus after complaining about being forced to use a school-branded debit card has been reinstated. Reversal of the decision leaves a critical question unanswered, however: Why are schools around the country forcing students to get into bad financial habits by using MasterCard-branded debit cards laden with booby-trap fees?
Catawba Valley Community College student Marc Bechtol was suspended for two semesters earlier this week after complaining about the debit card on the school's Facebook page, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Bechtol's Facebook complaint included a suggestion urging readers to find "good viruses" to send to the school or register it for porn sites. On Oct. 4, Bechtol was pulled from class and told he was no longer allowed on campus.
After the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) intervened, Bechtol was reinstated. The school viewed Bechtol’s post as a threat, but FIRE argued that it was protected free speech and not a serious threat.
A letter from the school's vice president of student and technology services sent Oct. 14, and posted on FIRE's website, said the school has decided to modify its disciplinary action because Bechtol offered to publicly express his regret for his "poor choice of words."
Bechtol complained last spring that school was forcing him to obtain a debit card issued by financial firm Higher One, and that his personal information would be shared with the company. When he did, he said he immediately began receiving credit card spam, which directly inspired his Facebook comment.
"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 wrote, according to the letter FIRE published.
Connecticut-based Higher One works with hundreds of schools to create combination student ID cards/debit cards that can be used for direct deposit of financial aid funds. The cards can also be used to withdraw cash or make purchases. There have been frequent complaints that the school cards carry higher fees than traditional ATM cards. On many campuses, students are charged 50 cents for each "debit" card purchase at retail outlets in which they enter their PIN codes for verification -- known as PIN-debit purchases, as opposed to signature-debit. ATM withdrawals at non-Higher One cash machines cost $2.50.
The fees led to the creation of a "Ignore the Higher One Debit Card Offer” Facebook page by a parent upset by the financial arrangement.
Last year, the Portland Oregonian wrote a piece examining the "noodly" fees associated with the school debit cards in the Pacific Northwest. In response to complaints, some schools have been able to negotiate lower fees for students.
The cards offer some advantages for both students and school. Similar to debit cards used to deliver unemployment benefits or other government payments, the cards are far cheaper than mailing checks. And recipients have quicker access to the funds.
But confusion over debit-vs-credit purchases, and a $19 "abandoned account" non-use fee that hits after nine months, have irritated users. The idea that a private firm is getting a cut of financial aid payments through debit card fees should also raise eyebrows.
But the chief concern about forcing students to use ID cards with MasterCard logos should be obvious: Why start kids down the credit/debit card route before it's necessary? And why get them used to the nickel and diming?