Rethinking student admissions in the U.S.: improving the student experience in a changing higher ed landscape

Sharon Butler
Sharon Butler
is EVP, Global Education at Flywire.

Recently, I had the privilege of contributing to a “Smooth Admissions Process” panel discussion at The PIE Live North America conference. Representatives from the University of Delaware, Webster University and World Education Services and I shared our experiences of admissions pain and discussed how technology could be used to improve the process and student experience. What I heard from the panelists resonated so strongly with what we hear from clients all the time.

Traditionally, the college admissions process has been notoriously complex and opaque. Prospective students often have to navigate a labyrinth of requirements, deadlines, and paperwork, leading to stress and anxiety among applicants.

However, the panelists described how evolving student expectations and changing student population demographics had led them to reevaluate their approach to admissions and take steps to streamline their processes, utilizing technology to enhance the overall student experience.

And it’s clear, both from what the panelists said and from what our own clients are telling us, that it’s not only students who are struggling. Teams across campus are under pressure to do more with less, and despite predictions of a domestic “enrollment cliff”, higher education institutions in the U.S. are receiving more applications than ever—often more than nine for every available seat. What's more, interest in the U.S. as a study destination for international students is increasing, only adding to the pressure. More than a million international students are currently enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, and international applications are increasing at triple the rate of domestic ones. The impact is that more work is created for recruitment, admissions, and finance teams.

More and more higher education institutions are laser-focused on streamlining internal processes to meet demands for faster application processing and are increasingly turning to technology to help. Using technology, institutions are able to automate manual, time-consuming processes that traditionally had created pain points for students. Examples include virtual campus tours, online application platforms, and digital document submission, which are now commonplace. However, universities often overlook one critical process, which has a significant impact on the student experience: payments.

Making a payment should be straightforward, yet recent research commissioned by Flywire showed that 3/4 of undergraduates say the process of making education payments has been a significant stressor for them and/or their families. It is often the final process before students enroll and, if they have difficulties, they can be left wondering if the institution is, in fact, the right fit for them at all.

Many students experience difficulties when paying for their education, with issues ranging from unclear instructions, a lack of convenient payment options, and even having too many vendor choices. Paying for their education feels far from easy, and they wish it were more streamlined. In fact, a staggering 90% told Flywire that access to a simplified payment process would improve their higher education experience. What’s more, 83% say that having their institution or education agent recommend a payment option would simplify the process, and three in four said that having a recommended provider would give them confidence that their payment was safe.

International students also have to grapple with foreign currency exchange and unfamiliar payment methods, and often have very little local language support available. If they have used an education agent, which is common in China, India, and some Latin American countries, students will often lean on them for support and advice throughout the application process. Unfortunately, that advice may not align with institution processes. Some agents will even complete some processes using student login details, giving rise to significant concerns over security and money laundering, to name a few.

Ultimately, difficulties that students have with making payments create reconciliation difficulties for finance teams. Missing payment information, mismatched invoice and payment amounts (perhaps because of unexpected fees or exchange rate fluctuations), late payments, or an unexpected payer (raising money laundering concerns) resulting from student difficulties create a headache for higher education finance teams in the U.S. and across the globe.

Using technology to digitize higher education payments (including 529 disbursements), automating reconciliation, and integrating with the Student Information System makes payments easier for students, giving them confidence that their payments have been transferred and received securely, thereby reducing stress levels. It can connect players in the ecosystem—students, agents, and institutions—enabling agents to support international students while maintaining security. Ultimately, the panel concluded that a healthy balance of internal resources and outsourced technology would solve traditional pain points and deliver the optimal student experience, not to mention process efficiencies that would reduce the internal pressures that the people behind the payments are currently experiencing.

At Flywire we understand the importance of delivering a great experience from the very beginning of a student’s higher education journey demonstrated by Flywire’s acquisition of Studylink. The combination of Studylink’s innovative international student admissions, application and agent management software with Flywire’s software and payments technology helps institutions streamline the entire student journey, from application and admissions through to deposit and tuition payments.

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