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Convenience charges skyrocket: College asks student leaders for their two cents

Mills College might raise tuition or charge extra for credit and debit card payments, according to ASMC Advisor Courtney Young-Law.

The college projects that it will have to pay $200,000 in “swipe” fees, fees incurred when students pay tuition with credit and debit cards.

Credit card companies charge Mills 2.75 percent of students’ card payments. Public schools like UC Berkeley, Young-Law said, charge its students a convenience fee to cover that 2.75 percent. But it is illegal in California for private schools to do it, too.

Fifty seven percent of students use credit or debit cards to pay their tuition and fees, according to M Center Operations Manager Deborah Long, and because of this, the college has decided not to take away the card payment option.

At the Feb. 14 ASMC meeting, student leaders brainstormed ways for the college to alleviate the cost of swipe fees without costing the students.

“What do we as students want to see?” ASMC President Amelia Lopez asked her colleagues.

When Mills adopted CASHNet as its tuition payment system last year, Young-Law said, the number of students who paid with a credit or debit card cost the college about $40,000. So the College Officers anticipated an increase in swipe fees and budgeted $60,000.

But they didn’t anticipate high enough.

User-friendly CASHNet triggered a surprising boost in online card payments, costing the college $200,000 in swipe fees, Young-Law said.

The College Officers—particularly Jamie Nickel in Finance—have asked for student feedback about doing away with the card payment option.

“Are there other ways the College can recoup that revenue that they’re losing to the credit (and debit) card fees?” Young-Law said.

The college would like to encourage students to use the Automatic Clearing House (ACH) payment system, which means students would pay electronically through a checking or savings account. When money is automatically withdrawn from a student’s account, Young-Law said, the college is not charged a swipe fee.

“This is the least expensive option for the college,” Long said about ACH. Students can also pay with a paper check, cash or bank wire transfer.

“There are so many payment options available,” said Class of 2013 Historian Alexis Savage. “I think that if students knew that (debit and credit card payments) cost so much money, there wouldn’t be an issue. I think there should be a letter written up with all the information and sent out to students’ families.”

The alternative payment options still might not work for everyone.

“I can’t do e-checks (ACH),” said ASMC Disability Senator Sheila Burson. She has a student bank account usable only with a debit card. “If I need money, I go get money out of the bank. If I pay something, I pay it with my debit card. There are accounts out there that are not related to a checking account.”

ASMC Academic Chair Modesta Tamayo noted that 76 percent of students on the monthly payment plan depend on cards.

“Coming from someone who’s been on a payment plan,” Tamayo said, “I know I’m not baller enough to be like, ‘Take $5,000 out of my account through e-checking (ACH).’ It sounds like a lot of the students are using it because they don’t have that money.”

Dru Anderson, ASMC Division of Arts Academic Senator, said that taking away the card payment option shouldn’t even be thought about. “Some of my friends—that’s the only way they can pay,” she said. “That’s the way they’re going to school. They’re using credit cards because they have to use them.”

Lopez posed a question for the group to think about:

“If we were to keep using credit cards, how much would we as students collectively be willing to raise our own tuition to pay for these (swipe) fees?”

The card payment option is not going away, but there will be more opportunities for student feedback about how the college can deal with swipe fees, Young-Law said.

“I think that the best way is for students to send feedback to ASMC,” she said. “The college would prefer that it all be filtered through (student government).”

The next ASMC meeting is Monday, Feb. 28, at 6:30 p.m. in GSB 118. The first 15 minutes are Open Forum for students to share concerns or questions.