Down the Higher One Rabbit Hole with Kyle Summerfield

Down the Higher One Rabbit Hole with Kyle Summerfield

Down the Rabbit Hole!
Down the Rabbit Hole!

Note: Despite problems with the courts, the controversial financing practices of Higher One haven’t stopped hundreds of college administrations from hiring Higher One to disburse financial aid. Here, Merced College student Kyle Summerfield offers a graphic account of his own experience with the Higher One “Blue Card.”

My name is Kyle Summerfield. I am currently a Merced College student. I am a single father of two young children, a full time parent who would not be able to attend college or be successful without receiving financial aid. I struggle regularly to meet the requirements of reporting and verifications of California’s Welfare to Work program without it being detrimental to my studies and progress in achieving my academic goals.

Fresh to this new “Higher One” experience, I have already decided my stance regarding this issue. If I had the option to refuse any association at all with Higher One, and this “Blue Card” system, I would.  I was never given the option to choose, however, because my association was decided for me by the administration of Merced College, and to my knowledge without appropriate consideration by the college’s Board of Trustees or the students who would ultimately be the victims of this banking institution’s “services.”

Indeed, my participation was agreed to only in not reading the fine print of the terms of my enrollment and reception of financial aid through the college and its disbursement policies. I trusted in good faith that Merced College, as an educational institution, would be ethical in its consideration of all such affairs. I no longer trust that my best interest, or that of my fellow students, is held at an appropriate level of priority by the college administration.  I now question the level of ethical standards of Merced College’s Administration and Board of Trustees.

In the spring of 2013 I received my financial aid check directly from Merced College. It was a sunny day, and I enjoyed waiting in line with my fellow students and two children for the disbursement check. Without hiccup or delay, I received my check and was free to do as I pleased with it on the very day it was promised to me by the college without fees or any confounding processes. I understood it to be a simple agreement between myself and the school that this method was acceptable and practical. The process was streamlined, and effectively served its purpose without confusion.

January 15, 2014 I was informed by Merced College Student Fees office that my “Blue Card” was on its way to me.  “What the hell is that?” I remember asking.  ‘

“It’s the new way you get your financial aid, it’s faster and easier, and there are all kinds of cool things that come with it,” I was told by the attendant on the other side of the glass.

As she told me this, my first conscious thought was, “She is selling this to me, why is she selling me this banking product?”

“Can I opt out, or just get the check in the mail?” I asked.

“No, all financial aid disbursements are now being handled through this card, but you can ask the bank to send you a check, instead, and they should,”  she responded, and I knew it was the end of that conversation.

This student/worker was obviously convinced on what she was selling, and I wondered to myself if she was even aware of what this meant. I concluded my business at Student Fees and left to deal with the rest of my obligations of the day, allowing the issue to settle in the bank of my mind and resolving to address my concerns in further research later (when I received the card and would have more opportunity to look into the matter).

Driving home later that day, “Why?” kept surfacing in my mind.  “Why?” I held to my belief that Merced College would not do this without it being in my best interest and wondered if it was a special banking program that would actually improve my financial experiences regarding my education.

January 28, 2014, I received the “Blue Card” in the mail. I read through all of the information in the envelope, and realized that I could not discard the items and appeal to the school for some other method of disbursement. Fees were hardly mentioned until I registered and logged onto their online website.

“Why would the college allow my financial aid to be subjected to fees associated with a for profit business?”  I wondered.

I briefly looked into some of their account options and the associated fees of each of them, already having decided that I would not open one unless it was the ONLY method of receiving the funds. I did this only to see what was being shoveled onto my fellow students by our educational institution, through our federal financial aid program.

Three options were presented to me:

(1) Open an account with Higher One and get the funds the same day they were reported to be released by the school.

(2) Have the funds deposited into a separate bank account of my choosing, requiring me to share even more personal information with this banking institution.  This option would also take up to 3 business days AFTER the funds are released from the school, and though no fees were mentioned I suspected there might be some involved.

(3) A check could be mailed to me, taking up to 7-10 days AFTER the funds were released from the school, the check being issued from Higher One, and not Merced College.

“Oh no,” I said out loud to my 5 year old daughter.

I was counting on having the money immediately available to me on the day it was promised to be released by the college, in order to maintain my budget and successfully continue participating in my education. I needed ink cartridges, gas to get to school, a parking pass, a print card for the college, and several more books before I would receive this check in the mail.  I could see I would otherwise be penalized financially and would run the risk of engaging in business further with this banking institution if I opted for direct deposit or to open an account with them. NO WAY.

Trust already broken, there were no special programs or benefits of dealing with Higher One, only fees to be paid and my personal information to be shared against my will even further than it already had been—it is right there in their privacy policies.

I had relied on receiving the funds promptly as was my previous experience in dealing with Merced College. I can no longer do that, and must make alternate and extensive arrangements in order to have what is needed while waiting for this check to come. In the meantime, I decided to look into this issue more and find out what I could in order to see what I can do to resolve my concerns for the future.

After a few brief conversations with Merced College Faculty and having read some articles here and elsewhere on the web, here I am.  Beginning my research into this issue, outside of my class time, in order to protect what I thought was already protected if not by law then by the policies of the school; my freedom of choice, my own financial independence and ability to make my own decisions regarding banking affiliations, my privacy, and my ability to continue my education without outside interference from any organization or person that does not have legal right.

Now I see their first disbursement did not go well, was delayed and late. I see fees being imposed on my fellow students, whom I agree are easy targets in today’s society for a wide variety of reasons I am not so happy to admit to.  I see a class action law suit has already been won against this banking institution on behalf of students who were targeted and taken advantage of by the institution’s  policies and practices.  How come no sanctions were put in place to prevent continued harm to students?

Everything logical, practical, and responsible in me is screaming, “THIS IS WRONG.”  I am committing myself to this issue, to see that is resolved and justice done for our student body.  My research is just beginning, and already I have discovered apparent inaccuracies boldly claimed by Lauren Perry in her letter to the editor of The Valley Citizen.

Time to go further down this rabbit hole, my academic progress left above ground,  and have a tea party with the “Mad Hatter” (Merced College, specifically its administration) and the “Red Queen” (Higher One), who will eventually release her clutches on my financial freedom. I pray I wake, as Alice did, and find myself back where I started—trusting in my educational institution.  Any who wish to accompany me on this journey, please do.  [email protected]

The Valley Citizen has more Higher One stories here, here, and here.



Eric Caine
Eric Caine
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.
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