TCF Bank Stadium built with U of M students' overdraft fees

Gophers get state-of-the-art arena, but at what price?

It sits like a citadel of stone and brick on University Avenue at the tail end of the east campus's Dinkytown neighborhood, an opulent colossus of Big Ten football. Its outer concourses, paved with poured concrete, are ringed by towering columns that lift the canopy a full three stories overhead. Stamped in stone slabs circulating the stadium are the names of every Minnesota county in alphabetical order.

In a few hours, the stadium will fill with curious visitors. A parade, starting a ways to the west in Dinkytown, will spill onto the field a little before 8 p.m. Garrison Keillor will give a speech to herald the stadium's official grand opening. A pep rally will celebrate the triumph of its construction, of its very grandiosity.

But on this cold October evening, the stadium is empty, save a few dozen security guards. Towering over the southern end zone is the jumbo high-definition marquee, flashing TCF's corporate logo. Walk to the primary gate, facing the northern arm of the campus, and look at the stone pillars. Engraved like the epitaph of Ozymandias is a message: "This stadium was built with the support of the students of the University of Minnesota."

The house that overdraft fees built
courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics
The house that overdraft fees built

It's been called "The Bank" and "The Vault," but the University of Minnesota calls it TCF Stadium. In 2009, it will be the site of just seven Gopher games. It cost over $280 million, and it is the grand expression of the university's partnership with TCF Bank.

For 15 years, TCF has been the U's preferred financial institution, and its presence in campus life lies in the school's very marrow. TFC's branches dot the campuses; its ATMs saturate the streets and dormitories. The U Card, the university's ID document, features not one but two TCF logos.

It's a relationship of mutual sponsorship, one that has seen enormous two-way traffic of money and endorsement. You can't go a block on campus without seeing the TCF name.

The U of M is one of over 100 colleges nationwide that have partnered with a bank for student I.D. services. TCF gets a near monopolistic position on campus, which brings them the new accounts of almost 85 percent of all incoming students. In return, the university receives $1 million annually in contractual reimbursements from the bank, an amount that doesn't include the funds that sponsor countless on-campus events, a figure TCF doesn't disclose.

TCF has made a killing off of "courtesy overdraft protection," a standard feature of its free checking accounts. Buy a $1.50 latte with $1 in your account? TCF won't decline the transaction—they'll lend you the .50, and hit you with a $35 overdraft fee. Prior to last week's stunning announcement that TCF would be eliminating the practice, TCF was one of the most overdraft-dependent banks in the Midwest.

So the Gophers get a state-of-the-art football arena, and the students get stuck with the bill twice over—once as tuition, and again as TCF fees.

"If I'm the dean of students or the VP of student affairs, I have a responsibility to my student body," says Ed Mierzwinsky, consumer program director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "I have a responsibility to negotiate a contract that doesn't allow the banks to siphon money out of my students' wallets by encouraging them to overdraft and then collecting 35 bucks a pop. I'm shocked to find the university hasn't negotiated a fairer contract to protect their students."

When Morgan Adamson moved to Minnesota from Santa Cruz, she was in a fix. She'd been a Bank of America customer for years, but in the Twin Cities, she couldn't find so much as a drive-up ATM that wouldn't slap her with extravagant withdrawal fees. She needed a new bank, and she needed it quick.

The obvious choice surrounded her on every campus walk, on every bus ride to the East Bank, looming over her on innumerable billboards. Like tens of thousands of students before her, she went to TCF.

"They had displays all over campus," she says. "It was easy for me to connect. They have direct deposit. I got a free sweatshirt that I gave to my dad."

Adamson is an affable 30-year-old graduate student at the University of Minnesota, a dishwater blonde who came from California to pursue her Ph.D. in comparative literature. She'd always been a prudent banker and had infrequently overdrawn her account.

After the university informed her that a summer grant had been dispersed to her TCF account, she cut an overdue rent check and, with the breathing room the grant afforded, did some shopping. She went to Target and the Wedge, buying a few small things here and there.

But when she returned to a TCF branch to check her deposit, she found that she was suddenly $1,000 in the hole.

It was a bureaucratic bungle—the grant hadn't been dispersed after all, and when she made purchases on the grant money, TCF didn't decline them. They honored the purchases, and hit her account with massive fees.

Since coming to prominence in the '90s, the practice of courtesy overdraft protection has become an enormous cash cow for banks, one that has skinned customers of billions under the guise of consumer protection.

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