For many students, college is an exciting time filled with academic exploration, new friendships, and personal growth. However, a significant portion of students find themselves grappling with stress and frustration around their bills. Tellingly, it isn’t just the amount on the bill that is stressful: it is the accuracy of the bill, understanding it, and knowing how to pay it. Our recent survey of 500 students revealed a lot about what they are worrying about, why it matters and how their schools could improve.
Bills are confusing: Almost half of students (41%) find their university bills too confusing and 75% said they have had to reach out with questions. Unexpected fees, unexplained charges and confusion about anticipated aid are at the top of the list of what confuses students. Bills need to be clear, concise, and easy to understand. Complex language, jargon, or unclear line items can exacerbate student anxiety and lead to unnecessary inquiries.
The process is painful: Paying for college is already a significant financial burden for many students and their families. When this process becomes stressful due to confusing bills or unclear payment options, it can negatively affect a student's mental health and academic performance. When students encounter a system they don’t understand, asking them to do things they don’t know how to do (find a routing number!) they may shut down completely. Paying the bill becomes a much bigger task when it is hard to do (and when it is not mobile friendly).
How students feel about their financial experience impacts how they feel about school: Financial stress and dissatisfaction with the billing process can significantly impact a student's overall college experience. When nearly two-thirds of students say that their financial experience affects their school satisfaction, it's a clear sign that universities must take action.
So what can universities do?
- Transparent Bills: Universities should make every effort to present billing information transparently. Bills should clearly break down tuition, fees, and any additional charges, avoiding complex terminology. Visual aids like charts and graphs can help students better understand the financial breakdown. Small things like a tooltip that explains why aid is anticipated can go a long way.
- Educational Resources: Give students easy access to educational resources that explain the billing process, common fees, and payment options. These resources could include online guides, FAQs, and video tutorials. Embed them in the payment process so that students can access them when they need them most. And consider how the emails you send can also include tips to support students through the process.
- Personalization: Each communication and bill should address the student (or their ally) directly using their name – we know no one wants to be a number. Emails and texts should include important information like the exact amount a student owes - there is no need for them to click on a bill just to get that info!
- Improved Communication: Regularly update students on changes to their bills, deadlines, and potential changes. Effective communication can prevent last-minute surprises and reduce stress. It is also an opportunity to provide students with resources and reminders.
- Two Way Communication: It is not enough to send messages to students - make sure it is easy for them to send messages back! Open up opportunities for students to ask you questions or flag they may have trouble paying their bills.
- Streamlined Payment Options: Offer multiple payment options, including payment plans, to accommodate various financial situations. Clear instructions on how to set up these plans should be readily available. And paying should be easy – once someone is ready to pay universities should make that process as easy as possible.
- Feedback Mechanisms: Create channels for students to provide feedback on their billing experience. This can help universities identify issues and continuously improve their processes. Our survey uncovered a lot!
The survey told us a lot of things we all suspected, but seeing it in writing cemented what we knew: the financial experience at universities can be a significant source of stress and dissatisfaction for students. However, by implementing these solutions, schools can help alleviate these pain points and create a more positive, transparent, and satisfactory financial experience. Ultimately, this will contribute to happier, more focused students who can fully enjoy their college journey without unnecessary financial worries.