Automated payment plans put the emphasis on planning

Columbia College Chicago uses Nelnet Business Solutions to dramatically improve on-time tuition payments

Student success is the number one goal at Columbia College Chicago. When an increasing number of students were delaying that success because of financial challenges, administrators took action.

New this fall were automated payment plans that encourage students and their authorized users—usually parents—to spread out a semester’s worth of tuition payments. Using plans from Nelnet Business Solutions, families are better prepared for college expenses, says Cynthia Grunden, assistant vice president of Student Financial Services at Columbia College Chicago, a liberal arts institution with more than 9,000 students.

“We made it a focus to make sure families were doing this financial planning,” Grunden says. “By making it a focus, we made it a reality. Families are now thinking about their costs ahead of time and making a plan so they don’t find themselves in an unfortunate financial situation.”

Already the college has seen fewer delinquent accounts that lead to financial holds, which prevent students from registering for classes and accessing transcripts.

“Compared to fall 2014, we have almost halved the number of students with financial holds and have reduced our outstanding receivable balance for the term by almost one-third,” Grunden says. “We are very pleased with the results of our efforts thus far.”

The new, proactive program replaces a reactive system that sprang into action whenever a student came to Student Financial Services in response to a financial hold. “We would develop a payment plan we thought would work for that student, but terms and conditions varied, so we had no effective way to know if students were on track—until a financial hold was placed on their account,” Grunden says.

The Nelnet payment plan program gives the downtown Chicago institution detailed information on each standardized payment plan, so administrators know immediately if a payment fails. In that case, an email is sent to the student or authorized user, explaining how to correct the situation.

The new program also costs less for students, who simply pay a modest setup fee instead of the monthly account maintenance fees assessed before. And if they sign up for payment plans soon after bills arrive, that setup fee is lower than if they wait until closer to the start of the semester.

“We want to incentivize proactive financial planning,” Grunden says.

This message has been relayed repeatedly in communications introducing the payment plans and encouraging families to sign up, and in follow-up emails to students whose tuition hasn’t been paid in full. The college also sends bills two months sooner than before.

“By organizing our communications, getting the bills out earlier, and introducing the automated payment plans, we’ve seen a huge difference in students being on track,” Grunden says.

The program’s success comes as no surprise to Grunden, whose institution has worked with Nelnet for more than a decade on processes such as electronic billing, one-time payments and acceptance of wire transfers from international students.

“Within 45 days of finalizing the contract with Nelnet, our payment plans were up and running,” Grunden says. “They provided an easy-to-complete implementation guide that walked us through the configuration decisions and provided a test environment so we could be confident that everything was working properly before we went live.”

This year payment plans are available per semester, but starting in fall 2016, Columbia students will be able to set up a nine-month plan to cover the entire school year.

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