Bursars, finance are taking a leading role in driving better student outcomes. Here’s how.

US colleges and universities talk on how they’re solving loans, approaching the enrollment cliff and driving positive student outcomes

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

There’s no doubt that there are big challenges to solve in the higher education industry. But what’s missing from the headlines are stories about the people actively working to solve them, and how invested they are in driving the best possible student outcomes.

That’s why I love opportunities like the ones I’ve had over the last few weeks to listen to and share ideas, thoughts and perspectives with other leaders in the higher education industry. This includes the Boston Globe Summit 2023 and a recent U.S. News & World report webinar, where we addressed education affordability by tapping into the resourcefulness and ingenuity at colleges and universities around the country. Using technology and automation in thoughtful ways is a big part of streamlining work and freeing up time for the kinds of actions that put higher ed payments within reach for all students, regardless of location. Let’s take a closer look.

4 higher ed finance challenges, and how leaders are solving them

Issue no. 1: Lessening the impact of student loan debt. One of the findings in our recent survey of global students is that across the world, student loans have become a norm in paying for higher education. In the US, roughly half of students have loans – with the top source being the federal government. One of the major concerns students have about carrying loan debt is that it will prevent them from continuing their education.

How universities are solving the student loan issue. Across the board, there was a recognition that while families are very prepared and aware of the costs for the first semester or year, the work now lies in helping advance the view of the cost to degree.

Schools are exploring, for instance, offering payment plans as one way to decrease the total loan amount, and put some part of that payment within a family’s budget.

At Tennessee State University (TSU), former Bursar Capri Harston used Flywire’s Student Financial Software to automate payment plans that support a budget-to-actual approach when paying for tuition. Before the semester begins, students and families can look at their student financial account, and ask the right questions: what financial aid do I have, how much do I need to borrow? And what can I pay for as I go, over time?

“We want students and families to think about the fact that college lasts more than one semester,” she said during the U.S. News & World Report webinar. “Our budget-to-actual payment plan has been instrumental in helping families see their billing statement from a different perspective.”

Issue no 2: Addressing declining admissions and the enrollment cliff. Higher Ed Dive tracks the shifting landscape of college and university closures and consolidations (as an example, 20 Massachusetts colleges have either closed or merged into larger institutions since 2014), moving at a steady clip across the country. Over the past decade, the industry has seen enrollment drop by 10% according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). Admissions and enrollment numbers already in decline at many colleges and universities across the US will soon converge with a smaller pool of students to attract altogether. Caused by a birth rate that has been declining since 2007, it’s known as the enrollment cliff.

How institutions are approaching the enrollment cliff. Schools are working hard to make sure students who are already enrolled have the best possible outcomes. To make sure students don’t fall off (or have a bridge back), many colleges and universities are aligning retention strategies with payment strategies and using technology to automate processes. With access to data, they can spot payment trends and can catch students before they fall by proactively putting them on a payment plan that fits their budgeting needs.

At the University of Rhode Island (URI), being able to quickly identify when a student is at risk of missing a payment, and therefore at risk of not being able to enroll or stay in their classes, is critical. Flywire helps URI automate that process. As Abby Benson, interim Vice President, Administration and Finance, at URI, said at the Boston Globe Summit: “It’s easier to keep a student than attract a new student.”

At TSU, they’re piloting flexible, longer-term payment plans that allow students to easily re-enroll if they are forced for any number of reasons to take time off from school.

“We pull them back in and give them a flexible payment plan that will allow them to stay on track,” Harston said.

Issue No. 3: Shrinking staff, lost headcount and upcoming retirements. Everyone who works in higher education is really good at doing more with much less. And a big part of that is because technology helps to automate a lot of manual outreach and work, which leaves time for more meaningful conversations and actions that contribute to student and institutional success.

As URI’s Benson put it, “Higher ed is a heavily human resource environment. We want to make sure we're maximizing that - anything we can do to minimize the administrative burden through technology is key. That way we can prioritize.”

That’s been a priority at Northeastern as well. The university worked with Flywire to implement self-service payment plan functionality that is now being used by nearly 6,000 students. This allows them to be more efficient, according to Thomas McWhorter, Dean of Student Financial Services, speaking at the Boston Globe Summit. You want students to do the things they can do easily online, according to McWhorter, so staff has more time to meet with the students truly at risk and need help, before it's too late.

Spending more time in conversation pays dividends. TSU’s Harston reminds her staff to take care of a student the first time they have a concern, because they’ll tell their classmates, and so on – either solving the problems themselves, or having the confidence to reach out if they find themselves with financial challenges. “If they feel heard, that’s something that has residual impacts,” Harston said.

Issue No. 4: Best serving students in a hybrid work-world. Schools are getting creative on ways to solve a longstanding challenge that only increased after the pandemic, communication – both with students as well as with other campus departments.

At URI, everyone at the finance office is cross-trained – so that students can reliably get answers or at least guidance whenever they drop in.

At TSU, Harston has a meeting once a month with representatives from each department that touches the bursar’s office through billing – this includes financial aid and auxiliary services like meal plans and health services, parking and more – to talk about what’s going on. “Students can’t say, the financial aid office told me this, the bursar’s office told me this,” she said. “We have real-time communication to lessen the burden of all our offices, and being pitted against each other.”

Higher ed is a hopeful place to be

Something Wellesley College president Paula Johnson said during the Boston Globe Summit stuck with me: “Higher ed is a hopeful place to be. Because we are really thinking about the future of the country as well as the future of our world.”

There is so much innovation and inspiration happening at colleges and universities globally – and strong demand for higher ed in general. Let’s not forget – the generation entering college in the next 5 to 10 years will be the first of the children of the most educated generation in US history. There’s a lot to be hopeful about, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds.

For more information on how to drive better student outcomes through payment innovation: