Northeastern, USC finance leaders discuss creative solutions to higher ed’s most pressing issues

Creativity isn’t often a trait that comes top-of-mind when thinking about best-in-class student financial services. But it’s becoming increasingly important in how leaders at some of the nation’s top universities are approaching their jobs today.

It’s a trend that Sharon Butler, EVP of Global Education at Flywire, has surfaced during a series of live conversations with leaders in student financial services. These Flywire LinkedIn Live Smart Talks are quick, consumable conversations on some of higher education’s biggest issues and real-life solutions that are working on campuses around the globe.

“The key word is creativity to try to operate in a very different world,” Butler said on a recent Smart Talk.

How are higher ed finance leaders applying creativity to their roles and departments? Recently, executives from Northeastern University and USC shared their advice around two relevant topics – education affordability and how to best attract and retain finance administrative staff in a post-COVID world.

Boston-based Northeastern University is looking at long-term solutions to the rising cost of higher education, and trying out things that will help innovate the entire financial aid model in tune with today’s student and family needs. Its largely data-driven approach aims to look at tuition management and cost to degree comprehensively, according to Northeastern’s Rob Reddy, Assistant VP, Enrollment Management and Dean, Student Financial Services, with solutions developed and piloted in that view.

For example, seeing a gap between applications for financial aid and issuance, Northeastern put a financial counseling team in place to help provide families with guidance on paying for higher education, such as how to pull together different resources. Northeastern is also piloting a long-term payment plan program that, in just its first year, is achieving very impressive results. Families enrolled in the program now have the flexibility to pay their tuition bills monthly over a longer period of time. Early feedback and results are extremely positive – both for the families and the university. Families say it helps them better budget their monthly expenses, best use 529 plan savings and even plan for higher ed expenses for their younger children. On the university side, missed payment rates are now in the single digits, and early evidence shows that it’s even helping to reduce student borrowing rates.

Smart Talks with Rob Reddy

“I would suggest institutions think as creatively as they can, as holistically as they can and don’t be afraid to test something out,” Reddy said of the pilot’s early successes.

While the payment needs of students have changed, so have the needs of those who help process and manage those payments. Typically long-tenured roles, retention wasn’t an issue leaders in student financial services historically had to consider, according to Rosemary Kennedy, Associate Vice President of Financial Services at the University of Southern California. That is changing. People are looking for different ways to work remotely – and some of the most talented staff are really changing how they want to work and what they want to do.

Smart Talks with Rosemary Kennedy

“If we’ve learned anything over the past two years, it’s that our new reality is a place that demands flexibility, understanding and creativity,” Kennedy said.

Retention takes a multi-pronged approach. For starters, USC has automated more of its financial processes – recently going live with Workday Financials and leaning on partners like Flywire for highly specific functionality. Technology frees team members from transactional work, lending more time to broaden their experience, whether it be supporting other areas within the student financial services division and/or the organization at large. When it comes to the work day itself, Kennedy said that while structure is important in some areas, we need to be flexible and ensure that structure doesn't override our end game and the results we want to accomplish. Overall, flexibility, trust and integrity are key to moving the line forward to success and employee enrichment.

“Our work is hard enough, and it’s ever changing. We need to find a way to have fun and take risks and enjoy the ride, and take our teams along on that ride with us,” Kennedy said.

Learn more from Northeastern and USC leaders about how they’re innovating in student financial services by listening to Flywire’s Smart Talk sessions below:

Smart Talks: The Changing Face of Higher Education with Rob Reddy, Assistant VP, Enrollment Management and Dean, Student Financial Services at Northeastern University

Smart Talks: The Changing Face of Higher Education with Rosemary Kennedy, Associate Vice President of Financial Services at the University of Southern California

Northeastern University and USC have been partners of Flywire for more than five years. We enjoy collaborating with each institution to help ease the payment process for students and families around the world. This includes offering flexible payment plans that help make education costs more manageable.