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Using the bank your college recommended? Check for fees 

Key Points
  • College-sponsored bank accounts cost students millions of dollars in fees each year.
  • That's the finding from a new report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which the Trump administration never made public.
  • The bureau found students using accounts at these colleges paid more than $27 million in maintenance and overdraft fees during the 2016-2017 academic year.
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College-sponsored bank accounts ding students with millions of dollars in fees each year, according to a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The Education Department under President Donald Trump never published the analysis but advocacy groups recently obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The bureau reviewed 573 colleges across the country with marketing agreements with banks.

It found that 1.3 million students attending these colleges had open and active accounts with their colleges' account providers.

Students using accounts at these schools paid more than $27 million in fees during the 2016-2017 academic year, including overdraft and penalty charges.

Wells Fargo charged students $46.99 a year in fees, on average. College students who used accounts with PNC were typically dinged $15.84 a year. (Most Americans pay around $9 a month, or $108 a year, for their checking accounts, according to Bankrate).

"A lot of college students are on really, really tight budgets," said Whitney Barkley-Denney, a specialist in student finance at the Center for Responsible Lending. "Any kind of disruption in that cash flow can be devastating."

Wells Fargo waives monthly fees on debit cards in its campus program, and so any charges are a result of how the card is used, said Jim Seitz, a spokesman for the bank.

"[C]ustomers use their accounts in different ways, so saving, spending and other transaction activity varies," Seitz said.

PNC does not charge a monthly fee on student accounts and it waives the first overdraft fee in the account's first year, said Amy Vargo, vice president of media at the bank.

To be sure, at most colleges, a majority of students paid no fees when using sponsored accounts, the bureau found.

Banks can compensate colleges based on the number of students who open and use their accounts, a practice that has raised concerns for consumer advocates.

"When you promote marketing of one financial product over another, it tends to remove the students' incentive to comparison shop," said Colleen Campbell, associate director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

Nearly 120 colleges report being rewarded by a bank to promote its financial products, according to the bureau. Wells Fargo paid $2,127,554 to colleges last year. PNC paid $7,562,570.

Education Department rules require that the financial products colleges promote are "not inconsistent with the best financial interests" of their students.

However, Campbell said, "an argument can be made that these institutions aren't acting in the best interest of their students."

Education Department press secretary Liz Hill said the bureau's research confirmed the importance that the department's upcoming pilot program, in which certain students receive their financial aid on a debit card, include a fee-free option.

A spokesperson for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said the bureau doesn't comment on unpublished studies.

Before you sign up ... for a bank account recommended by your school, shop around and learn about your other options, said Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

Students should evaluate online banks that offer free checking accounts and withdrawals from any ATM, he added. "This way, the same account can cover all their needs, whether they're at home or at school," he said.

In addition, students might want to check out the brick-and-mortar banks and credit unions in their college town. "Do your own research — don't just take your school's word for it," he said.

There should be no charge for using a bank of the student's choosing, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of SavingForCollege.com.

"If you use the debit card provided by the college, watch out for high fees," he added.

Some of these debit cards provide only one free withdrawal a year, he said, and the number of fee-free ATMs may be limited and can quickly run out of money.

Nearly 1 in 10 consumers with student accounts picked up 10 or more overdrafts per year, and they paid nearly $200 on average for doing so, a previous study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found.

You have to actually opt in to an overdraft program at your bank to participate, said Matt Schulz, credit expert at CompareCards.com. That option allows your card to go through when you make purchases, even if your account is in the red — but you'll typically be charged a fee each time.

If you don't opt in, your card will just be declined if you can't afford a purchase. If you do, Schulz warned, "watch your balance like a hawk."