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The Role Of Payments In Higher Ed’s Great Digital Shift

Flywire On Pandemic's Impact On Higher Education

Universities are all about giving students learning experiences, but having one themselves isn’t usually standard operating procedure.

Ever since schools worldwide began shutting their campuses due to the pandemic, nothing in higher education has been normal, as Sharon Butler, executive vice president of global education at Flywire, told Karen Webster.

Butler, whose firm serves as a payments platform for educational institutions and other clients, said schools of all sizes and descriptions had to scramble to rapidly switch to online classes in response to the pandemic. But with the 2020-21 academic year getting ever closer, school leaders have the unenviable task of having to react to a host of issues without a clear idea of exactly how things will play out when classes start up again.

“I feel really bad for a lot of our administration on campus who are now working around the clock because they have to figure out how to equip common areas or equip people at home, and what cafeteria layouts should be,” Butler said. “How do you get students in classes while maintaining social distancing? How do you track students and manage them in heavy congestion points?”

She said schools are “investing a ton of money because they have to figure things out. And at the same time, consider all the questions around things like, ‘What’s the student return rate going to be?’”

Butler said that’s something schools won’t know until the bills go out for next semester, and colleges and universities see how students respond. But what those bills will look like remains something of an open question as well.

The tier-one, big-name schools with billions of dollars in endowments are the least reliant on tuition but are, in many cases, insisting on charging full freight for the upcoming year whether classes occur remotely or not. But some smaller schools are considering tuition discounts even though they’re more dependent on tuition than top-tier schools.

Which way different colleges and universities will go — and how students will respond — remains unknown, Butler said. After all, roughly 80 percent of U.S. schools have delayed sending out tuition bills, largely waiting to see what other institutions do.

But she said she suspects that when the bills do go out (and, more importantly, when payments come in), U.S. colleges and universities will likely see something on the order of a 25 percent reduction in enrollment. And an even bigger hit remains possible given that foreign students have been thrown into uncertainty by new U.S. visa rules that prohibit them from entering the U.S. for school unless at least one of their classes takes place in person.

While education as a vertical is usually slow to embrace change, Flywire’s year has been remarkably busy thus far. Butler said the firm has had 300 new clients sign onto its payment platform so far in 2020, looking for help developing more flexible digital methods of accepting payments and moving money around.

“The one thing I see in higher ed is that everybody does try to help each other,” she said. “Technically, there’s some competition, but right now this is really driven by the collective need to survive.”

The Importance Of Foreign Students

As a microcosm of the problems that universities face, the situation with their international students offers an instructive case. Foreign students generally pay full tuition up front at the start of each semester, a powerful boost to every university’s revenue stream, Butler said. In fact, those dollars are so important that schools around the world are thinking very “outside the box” when it comes to helping foreign students continue their educations, she noted.

For instance, New York University is leaning heavily on campus resources it’s already developed in China to continue facilitating Chinese students’ educations, Butler said. And among the wilder initiatives, U.K. schools are chartering private flights to bring their students in and quarantining them in special facilities.

“Good luck if you have plans to go to Pittsburgh this fall, [because] the University of Pittsburgh struck a deal with most of the hotels in the city to house students and paid a good chunk of money to secure them all,” Butler said.

That level of investment seems far from extreme when one considers international students’ total impact on the U.S. economy — $41 billion a year and 450,000 jobs.

That’s led universities to develop new and more flexible payment methods for their students who are returning from around the world. Butler said that payment plans hadn’t historically been a tool in this arena because universities had become fairly reliant on the money coming in up front.

But in the face of the pandemic, Flywire has expedited the rollout of installment plans for international students largely at the behest of universities. Butler said schools are working overtime to protect and increase enrollment for next year and are highly motivated to try everything they can think of to do so.

Domestic Students Are Important, Too

That new flexibility is also extending to how schools are handling domestic billing.

Butler said that while many colleges and universities historically offered domestic students installment plans to make tuition payments easier to manage, they usually set a very early date in the school year to pay off bills. Non-payment by that date meant — with very few exceptions — that the student was out.

But as Butler noted, there’s a lot more flexibility now, with schools sometimes stretching out installment periods throughout the academic year.

“There has been a shift to a more student-centric focus when it comes to helping students,” she said.

An Uncertain Path Forward

“Still, it’s hard to know what colleges and universities will ultimately look like as a result of this very disrupted school year,” Butler said.

Massive university systems with brand names and endowments measured in the billions are assuredly going to survive, while some small, private schools could declare bankruptcy. But schools in between are thinking quickly and inventively about how to not only survive the current difficulties, but also use them as the building blocks for future success.

According to Butler, schools that can find a way to step up and provide a good online experience that goes beyond the widely panned “lecture on Zoom” experience could use that to their advantage.

“They could actually broaden their horizons in terms of who they have access to,” she said.

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