The purchase of textbooks and other educational materials before the start of the semester has numerous benefits: Students are better prepared heading into classes; faculty can begin teaching from the books immediately; and the bookstore is less crowded during that first manic week. But for students on financial aid at Western Washington University, where funding is disbursed on the first day of class, being well prepared came at a price. To shop ahead of time, before their aid had been made available, they had to either use a credit card or borrow money against their pending fund disbursement.
Both approaches inconvenienced students and burdened university staff with paperwork processing. The credit card transactions imposed additional obstacles: of cost, as there are fees retailers must pay for card usage, and of risk, as often the card information was delivered over the phone by parents to bookstore clerks. “Any time you have to jot down sensitive information like that, it’s risky,” notes Wanna VanCuren, director of financial systems at the university. “Even though we have good practices, it’s still risky. You have that piece of paper that has that person’s number and name on it.”
Western Washington’s solution was to allow charges up to $600 in bookstore purchases—textbooks, stationery, or other educational supplies—to student accounts. The university’s IT staff integrated the bookstore’s point-of-sale system, provided by Sequoia Retail Systems, with the school’s Banner accounts receivable system so that purchases and returns could be easily tracked.
The change was popular from the beginning, notes VanCuren. “When we first rolled it out, for the first month we had $400,000 of charges right onto it. It’s really a lot easier for our students to pick up their textbooks.”
Overall, since the new process’ implementation last September, more than $1.1 million of supplies have been charged to student accounts, with officials reporting virtually no problems in the collection process.
Credit card fees will be reduced by an estimated $40,000 per year, and the Sequoia-Banner integration greatly sped up the returns process, with access to funds from returned materials granted within 24 hours, far less than the three to six business days of processing time under the prior process. Students and parents can see bookstore charges along with tuition, fees, and the like on account statements, allowing them to track expenses more precisely—and there is no longer the potential of slips of paper with credit card numbers and expiration dates left lying around the cash register. Because the need for emergency loans has been reduced for this purpose, staff in the financial aid office can work on more pressing tasks.
“Here’s an example of where we have two wins,” says Rich Van Den Hul, vice president for business and financial affairs. “Increasing services to students and significantly decreasing costs to the bookstore for credit card fees.”