Higher education bursars share advice on easing education payments

Jim Garrant
Jim Garrant
Director of Client Advocacy & Associations - Education

As the holiday season approaches, students, professors and administrators at universities across North America eagerly anticipate taking a break from all of the excitement and exhaustion of the academic year’s first half.

That is, everyone except those of you who work in the Bursar, Controller and Student Financial Services offices.

What brings many of our clients to us are scenes like this. They’re sitting in offices on campuses gone quiet, save the sound of their own picks for holiday tunes, manually combing through wire transfer paperwork, 529 disbursement checks, and other forms of payments. Hours slowly pass by, all in an effort to make sure student payments have been received and accurately reflected in their system. They start to think – there must be a better way.

I know. I’ve been there.

As a former bursar, it’s a big reason why I’m always excited to sit down with clients who were formerly my industry peers. I like to help them work through their challenges, celebrate their wins and listen to what they’re doing to make payments work better not only for their students, but their own staff as well.

At the recent Professional Development Group’s (PDG) annual Student Loans & Financial Services Virtual Conference, I had the pleasure to moderate a panel discussion with four Flywire clients –Maria Brown, Director, Cashier’s Office, North Carolina State University (NC State), Tim Riley, Bursar at Purdue University, Brett Cassell, who is Bursar at University of Colorado Boulder, and Isaiah Behnke, Director, Student Account Operations, University of Virginia (UVA).

We talked about the evolution of payment processes and how their jobs have improved since implementing Flywire. The more than 100 listeners on the webinar had loads of questions for these industry experts. Here are a few takeaways from our conversation.

NC State eases the burden of accepting wire transfer payments

As the source markets for international students shift, so do payer and payment needs. It would seem nearly impossible to serve a global student population without assuming the complexity of handling wire transfers. But that’s exactly what NC State has been able to do.

With Flywire directly integrated with its student portal, students now have a one-stop-shop for making online payments in their preferred currency and payment method, including wire transfer. International students like the ease and security of paying through Flywire, according to Brown. The university no longer accepts wire transfers outside of Flywire – uptake of which is evidenced by the fact that NC State no longer even gives out its wire transfer information for manual payments. Considering that NC State has collected more than 2,700 payments from 2,100 payers across 67 different countries since implementing Flywire, that’s quite a feat.

“Clearly, our international students like to pay this way,” Brown said. “Flywire is very student-centric. They have international students in the forefront to make things better.”

Purdue digitizes 529 plan disbursements, giving staff dozens of hours back

Today’s typical 529 disbursements process looks like this. Families make a withdrawal request from their 529 plan provider. Funds get sent via paper check through the postal service or via expensive overnight couriers, rather than direct ACH. When institutions receive the checks, they manually sort, open, post, balance, remote deposit and shred them in accordance with regulations.

At 2.5 minutes per check, processing thousands of 529 disbursement checks a year was starting to take a toll on Purdue University’s finance staff. A leader in tuition innovation on a number of levels, the Indiana-based university has been able to freeze its tuition for the past 11 years, an act in at least some part owed to operational efficiencies gained through technology. In 2021, it sought efficiency for the 7% of payments it still received by check – 75% of which were 529 disbursements. By using Flywire’s 529 Disbursement solution, the institution is now able to digitize and automate much of the process. To date, Riley estimates his department has saved 83 hours in servicing time by digitizing 529 disbursements – time he and his team can now use on bigger and more strategic projects.

Plus, “you’re helping students and parents go through less of a hassle,” Riley said.

University of Colorado Boulder automates pre-collection processes, making big gains on past-due accounts

Moving the collection process up by two months, automating much of the outreach, and providing students with flexible options to pay through Flywire has helped University of Colorado Boulder better collect on at-risk and past due student accounts.

“Being able to extract two months earlier really helped us get to the students before they got away from us,” Cassell said, referencing the fact that they now view accounts in November for the fall semester and April for the spring.

Flywire’s pre-collect capability has helped the university solve 46% of past-due accounts before they go to an internal debt counselor. As a result, accounts basically “manage themselves” during the 45-day automated pre-collect process, with students either paying in full, or setting up payment plans. If there isn’t movement after 45 days, the accounts go to the in-house collection queue and then debt counselors, giving the university and the student several options before being sent to a collection agency. What’s more, counselors working on these accounts can see a complete history of actions taken up to that point – making managing that process with the student a lot easier.

“Students are able to settle their debt and they now have a lot more options to pay,” Cassell said.

At UVA, ease of enrolling in payment plans leaves time for more thoughtful financial conversations

UVA began using Flywire’s payment plan functionality in 2018, and quickly saw results – to the tune of 600 additional students and families opting to enroll. For comparison’s sake, in the fall of 2017, there were 1,450 plans. Currently, Flywire helps UVA manage 3,000 payment plans, with 13% of the student population taking advantage. Easing the entire process of enrolling for and paying against a payment plan also significantly reduces call volume regarding questions around how to enroll in the plan. This now leaves much more time for important financial planning conversations – advancing the holistic goal of higher education affordability.

“They can focus on more meaningful questions around financial planning rather than technicalities around the payment plan,” Behnke said.

This esteemed panel had more than these highlights to share. For the complete discussion (along with some friendly, competitive banter on school mascots), watch our full “Transforming Student Services: How Four Universities are Doing More with Less” session.

Want to learn more?

Check out the following resources to see why Flywire is the Trusted Choice of millions of students and thousands of education institutions and agents around the world:

  • Discover how our Payment Plans offer flexible self-service payment options that make education costs more manageable
  • See how Flywire automates the past-due receivables process to proactively increase collections and keep more students enrolled
  • Find out how 529 Disbursements speed payment reconciliation by eliminating paper checks to save time and resources
  • Explore our interactive maps to see how students and institutions experience the difference with Flywire.