Financial Resource Center


Eliminate Tuition Shock and Awe: Translate Your Billing Statement

by Ken O'Connor / August 1st, 2011

It happens during the heat of the summer months. An unusually shaped piece of mail is sent to the home of a college student. This letter is unlike the admissions and financial aid packet in a big beautiful envelope full of gorgeous pictures of the school. No, this letter looks more like this:
For some families, this billing statement is a moment of truth. If some have been conveniently ignoring the costs associated with attending college, it never becomes more clear than now. The bill must be settled before starting school and a sense of panic may overwhelm the unprepared family. To help deal with the bill more effectively, here are some key points to consider.
  • Like snowflakes, no two schools have exactly the same bill design, but they all have the same message: You owe money. Each college can have different colors, different names for charges, and different matrix designs for data. Students and parents need to familiarize themselves with their school's billing format so they understand what they are looking at.
  • Shock: I owe how much? That can't be right! If you notice in the picture of a billing statement, it says the amount due is $22,354.21, even though financial aid eligibility is listed on the same statement. Why is the statement not adjusted to $13,604.21 to reflect the expected financial aid? The reason why is because scholarship and financial aid eligibility may be subject to change during the summer, and it is not until the funding pays to the account that the balance is ultimately satisfied. So the school produces these statements to document full charges and make you aware of the total costs you are responsible for whether you pay out of pocket or use scholarships, financial aid, and student loans to pay the bill. If for some reason a scholarship was terminated, financial aid was lost during the verification process, or a loan was canceled because you forgot to sign the application, you are still held responsible for the total balance due.
  • Can I get this paid online? Online billing systems can be a major convenience. However, schools will vary on how well their online payment systems work with the bursar. Some schools have very navigable services, while other schools are not so simple. My rule of thumb with university online billing is that it acts as a bellwether for how well-integrated technology is on campus. If you find it simple to deal with an online bill, most other administrative contact will be technologically simplified as well. If it seems overly complicated, garbled, and impossible to get a straight answer, you may find a similar trend in other administrative offices.
  • Can I waive medical insurance? Schools generally charge a medical insurance fee to each student under a blanket policy. It's for the protection of the school and every student that attends. However, if the student qualifies for insurance under the parents' name, he or she can probably get the fee waived. For the fee to be waived, the student will have to submit proof of coverage by a specific deadline, or the charges stick. Make sure to settle this billing issue during or prior to the first week of the semester so you don't forget.
  • Can I pay with a credit card? Be advised that most schools accept some kind of credit card payment, but may attach additional processing fees for using that payment method. Many colleges have altered their relationships with credit card companies due to the high processing fees they charge for providing the service. As a result, the colleges may now forward the credit card fees to the student/parent paying the bill. Therefore using a credit card to help pay tuition bills may not be very cost-effective. Before paying a college bill with a credit card, review the fees associated with the transaction.
  • My additional private student loan is not showing up on my account; what's wrong? When you apply for an additional private loan to help cover expenses, it is separate from the federal and state financial aid regularly awarded to students. That's because private loans require additional processing with your lender. Once approved, the loan information needs to be forwarded to the school to be acknowledged as a payment source and requires certification from the financial aid office. Sometimes there is a communication lag, and pending loans are not readily acknowledged. It's a good idea to contact people in your financial aid office to make sure they know who your private lender is so they can coordinate and process accordingly.
  • This makes no sense; I'm calling them first thing Monday morning. Then, come Monday morning, you faithfully call the college, but are put on hold or you do not get the service you desire. Here is some advice; don't bother calling a college on Monday. It's already absurdly busy with students, parents, and other administrators all demanding some form of service. Help the bursar better help you by calling on Wednesday or Thursday. Colleges have imbalanced workflow schedules where Mondays are overly busy but by the end of the week the phones might barely ring. If you desire a good 10-minute review of your account, make the call on the day when someone can give you full attention.
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Ken O'Connor is a financial aid expert and the director of student advocacy at Learn more about credit union private student loans and college planning by visiting his blog.
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