Two years ago, hundreds of students organized by the student government stormed into President Daniel Bernstine’s office and demanded he break the university’s contract with Higher One, the Connecticut-based company that handles Portland State’s financial-aid distribution and ID-card services.
Students were concerned with issues of privacy, a lack of disability services with the ATMs, fees for using the One Card, and the Higher One rewards program. University Affairs Director Amy Connolly said that the student government has now resolved these concerns.
Connolly said that Higher One has never sold student information, they are currently working on making their ATMs more accessible, and the fees associated with the One Card are similar to what other financial institutions charge. She said that her initial concerns resulted from misinformation disseminated by the Christy Harper and Ryan Klute student government administration, which led the Higher One boycotts.
Connolly said she does not believe there is any extra incentive for students to spend money with their One Card, as she believes that the money will be spent anyway.
Connolly said the newly elected Associated Students of Portland State University (ASPSU) administration will work with Higher One to make the service fit the needs of ASPSU. Criticisms of the company’s business tactics and ethics have diminished in the two years since the company came to PSU, but many students are still strongly opposed to the service.
Students publicly boycotted Higher One in 2004. Soon after the boycott students were allowed to opt out of the Higher One card for a $20 fee.
Student body President Courtney Morse and Vice President Jesse Bufton stated in numerous campaign speeches their intent to reignite the Higher One debate once elected, with the goal of forcing the university to enact a free opt-out program. Soon after being elected, previous boycotters Morse and Connolly brought their concerns to the administration and Higher One and walked away with a different outlook.
”After meeting with them we found out their side,” Morse said. “What’s really important is we come with an open mind to figure out what Higher One is about.”
Connolly, who also serves on the PSU One implementation committee created by President Bernstine, said that the student government’s previous dealings with Higher One have not been in the best interests of students. She said that communication with Higher One will help them serve PSU better by knowing what students want in the service. Connolly also said that it is her goal to educate students about how Higher One operates.
Former 2004 ASPSU Vice President Ryan Klute, an outspoken opponent of Higher One, said this student government’s recent switch on the Higher One issue is a matter of “sheer incompetence.” He said he is disappointed in their decision to support the company and he does not think that much could have changed in the two years since he served in ASPSU.
”I honestly believe these people that won are so young,” Klute said, “and when this really great guy from Higher One called they might not have had the ability to critically look at the situation.”
Many students, including ASPSU President Courtney Morse, see the Higher One rewards program as an incentive to spend financial aid on unnecessary products.
Every dollar spent at Eddie Bauer’s online store, for instance, will net five “One Rewards points” that can in turn be spent on products ranging from DVDs to video game systems. An MP3 player that retails at $99 will cost the student 13,000 points, a point total that can only be reached by spending $2,600.
PSU was the 14th school to sign up for the Higher One service. Currently Higher One has contracts with 51 universities around the country.
Students can choose how their aid gets disbursed, either by check, direct deposit or by activating a One Account. The One Account is a checking account in which the student’s financial aid gets immediately disbursed after being released. Students who do not sign up for a One Account may have to wait for up to two weeks in order to receive their aid by mail.
Chris LaConte, the student liaison for Higher One, said that PSU is unique in its history with Higher One. “We’ve never had such a negative reaction as we’ve had at PSU,” he said.
According to the frequently asked questions section on Higher One’s web site, “PSU was the only school that had any major issues. These issues were based on incorrect information.”
LaConte also said his relationship with the current ASPSU administration will help end the “myths and misinformation from these last two years.”
Klute said that the information used against Higher One during the boycotts was all based on facts with footnotes and cited sources. He said that he and his staff compiled a list of 150 questions regarding Higher One and attempted to answer all of them.
”We were calling people, googling things, looking at [Higher One’s] web site,” Klute said. “I’ve never done more research for anything than I’ve done for Higher One.”
He also made reference to similar controversies at dozens of other schools, including Southern Oregon University and LaConte’s former school, the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where LaConte served as student representative for Higher One.
Connolly said she does not believe that the Harper/Klute administration had their facts correct. “It’s important to know that the Harper/Klute administration didn’t do their own research,” she said. “I don’t think that administration wanted to alleviate the problem, they just wanted a yelling match.”
Former Communications Director for ASPSU Tony Rasmussen said the Harper/Klute administration provided extensive research. “We had two interns that did nothing but research Higher One,” he said. “We never laid a claim we couldn’t back up.”
Rasmussen said that Connolly, who took office last month, could not match the months of research he put into Higher One. “I don’t know what her three weeks of research has turned up,” he said.
A student concern over the 50-cent debit transaction fee is undisputed by Higher One, but LaConte said that the fee is about the same as what other banks charge, although he said most hide the fee in other service charges. He also said that one penny out of every 50 cents is put into a student activity fund.
Klute said that Higher One’s dealings with ASPSU when he was serving bordered on harassment. He said that representatives, including LaConte, called the ASPSU office three to four times a day to attempt to persuade them to support the company. He said that on more than one occasion, executives from Higher One offered to fly to Oregon to buy him and former ASPSU President Christy Harper dinner and drinks.
”They tried wining and dining us so bad,” Klute said. “They said, ‘We’ll fly in and get dinner somewhere, just business-to-business people.'”
LaConte said that he has never heard of anything like that happening and that he has never offered to buy any member of the student government anything. He said that it must be a misinterpretation on Klute’s part.
”They took something we might have said and took it the wrong way,” LaConte said. “There might have been a miscommunication there.”
Initially, LaConte denied ever offering to buy dinner for any ASPSU members, but said later that he had never offered to buy dinner for the Harper/Klute administration. He said that dinner plans were brought up with Morse, but that if it would be viewed as a conflict of interest then Higher One would not pay.
Morse said that LaConte offered to buy her and Connolly dinner during a visit planned in mid-August. Connolly said LaConte never offered either her or Morse dinner, but Morse said he had not only offered to buy them dinner, but also drinks.
”We said we weren’t interested in dinner,” Morse said. “They’re not going to buy us over.”
Morse said that even though she wants to work with Higher One, she still does not trust the company.
”You’re not going to go anywhere without talking to people we have problems with,” Morse said. “If Higher One knows that our student government is open-minded to work with them on things, then we can change things about them we don’t like.”
ASPSU will be administering a survey in August for students to express their opinions on Higher One. Higher One will provide an iPod that can be won by taking the survey. LaConte altered aspects of the survey for a final draft, but Connolly and Morse both said it is not a Higher One-sponsored survey.
Klute said the iPod is another example of Higher One influencing the student government.
”It’s sad only because this administration talked a lot about helping the poor students, now they’re in bed with a big company,” Klute said. “I’ll buy them iPods if they pull their heads out of their asses.”
LaConte said he does not see how the iPod prize could be viewed negatively. “If people feel that way we can just take away the iPod then,” he said.
Higher One’s contract with PSU will be up for renewal in 2009 and Morse said she does not think she will support Higher One once PSU has the option to choose another provider.
”I don’t think they are necessarily best for us,” Morse said. “There are a lot of companies that have more of a community direction and aren’t so corporate.”