The Bursar’s Office: A Challenge for Students & Staff

Alfredo Brillembourg
January 17, 2023

Students often have complicated relationships with the Bursar's office. On one hand, the office helps them make payments and check the status of their accounts. Bursars are available to answer questions about due dates and help make payment plans so that every student’s account reads ‘paid off’.

On the other hand, the Bursar’s office is a source of stress and anxiety. No matter how helpful and patient the staff is, many students find it to be an intimidating place where they must present their financial situation. Students feel overwhelmed and frustrated because higher education costs have soared, which means students must grapple with the question of how to pay for college.

For both students and staff, the Bursar’s office is a place of emotional and mundane intensity, where financial aid intersects with student success. Let’s explore how students and staff feel about their Bursar’s office, as well as solutions to improve the experience.

Angst in the Bursar’s Office

Let’s cover some of the greatest sources of stress in the Bursar’s office. As mentioned above, Bursars bill students for tuition costs. They also advise them when their accounts aren’t paid off—which means many students end up in the Bursar’s office when their account is on hold or when their account balance is incorrect.

This might happen for a variety of reasons—and may not even be a student’s fault. For example, a student might be charged for meal plans and other amenities that they didn’t register for. They may also be incorrectly billed for the credits they plan on taking that semester. Mistakes like these can lead to incorrect balances and accounts being put on hold.

This, in turn, can affect a student’s enrollment, which makes the Bursar’s office a stressful place.

Bursars Work to Empower Students…

Frustration and tension aside, the Bursar's office is an important source of support for students. In addition to providing a student with their financial outlook, the Bursar's office can provide advice on how to manage finances and stay on track with payments. Many also provide helpful reminders to students about certain deadlines, from filing out the FAFSA to applying for institutional scholarships. The Bursar's office is also responsible for tuition billing, which can be a great help for students who are juggling multiple responsibilities.

While financial aid officers help students craft an approach to pay for school and apply for aid, the Bursar’s office is where that plan moves into action.

…But What About Staff Empowerment?

When it comes to higher education, the focus is often on students. Schools seek to improve recruitment strategies and college enrollment outcomes, tinkering with their approach in order to improve student success.

But what about the staff working in the Bursar’s office?

Just like students, Bursars face challenges related to the complexity of the financial aid process. While they aren’t the ones who help students apply for financial aid, they’re responsible for collecting payments and maintaining their accounts.

A large part of their job involves helping students navigate the financial systems of higher education. This is often a difficult task, especially when students lack an understanding of the language used in the process.

Another challenge Bursars face is helping students plan for each semester. A student’s outlook might shift throughout the academic year, influencing the number of credit hours they take and aid programs like work-studies.

One of the most demanding aspects is that many students don't fully understand the financial burden they're taking on when they choose to attend college. Those who do may still struggle to craft a financial plan and stick to it. A Bursar must be able to collect tuition payments while also being sensitive to a student’s financial and academic outlook.

To make it worse, a lot of the work in the Bursar’s office is manual - they use pen and paper and excel sheets more than they use automation. Their plates are full and they lack the technology to lessen the load. This means they often do not have enough time to support students the way they want to be supported.

This is all a heavy call for the Bursar’s office—especially considering one growing demand from students is mutual trust.

A More Hands-On Approach to Wellness & Finance

There’s one key element tying Bursars to their students—and it has nothing to do with loans. Aside from breaking down complex financial concepts and conveying the risks and benefits of a five-figure tuition cost, the Bursar’s office must also maintain a high standing with students. Just like financial aid officers in the enrollment office, a Bursar’s key role is to bring clarity to student financing (while also collecting payments).

To do this well, a Bursar must foster an atmosphere of trust and understanding.

That’s because students may be hesitant to ask questions or express their concerns if they feel uncomfortable. For this reason, anyone who interacts with student finances today - both Bursars and financial aid officers  - should focus on creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

But this is a challenge—especially if a student feels overwhelmed and uncertain about their financial situation. Here, we can see one of the most important underlying factors of success in the Bursar’s office: transparency and openness.

A New Approach to the Bursar’s Office

A student's relationship to college financing is one of the primary aspects that will affect their success in the future. Viewed in this way, universities are prioritizing the overall experience in the Bursar’s office, for students and for the staff responsible for their financial well-being.

In other words, universities can alleviate stress tied to finances for both students and Bursars by fostering an open relationship between them. Similarly, Bursars shouldn’t undervalue the impact that a personal connection can make on students facing financial uncertainty. The right combination of tools to make their jobs easier and increase personalization, and actual time spent working with students on a personal level, are the keys to building trust and supporting students.

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