Self-service bill pay may soon extend to the mobile phone.
IT'S NO SECRET THAT university finance officers continually
add features to online billing systems, both to
make the process more convenient for students, and to
increase those systems' efficiency. Improvements may
involve single sign-on to all of a student's accounts and
the ability to transfer funds between them easily; e-mail
notifications to students and family members; and online
access to payment plans and e-refunds. Some schools
are partnering with banks, allowing them to add the functionality
of an ATM card to student IDs. The University of
Michigan, for one, has an arrangement with TCF Bank that adds the functionality of an ATM
card to students' Mcard ID, which they already use for
photo identification, library privileges, building access,
meal plans, and the Blue Bucks debit card program. All of
these features can be viewed and changes made through
the MyPlan online account management website.
But some universities are either just getting into or are
still in the process of streamlining student-facing financial
systems. Montclair State University (NJ) implemented
the Blackboard Transact system
in August 2006, to cut down on manual processes and
paperwork. Before the transition, it might have taken the
university three days to handle a transfer from a student's
bursar account to his debit card, says Kathleen Ragan,
associate vice president for student development and
campus life. "Needless to say, there was a lot of pushback
from students about poor customer service," she says.
The Transact system allows students to perform online
transaction processing of registration, payment of bursar
bills, and transferring of funds between accounts. Now,
more than 70 percent of student transactions can be handled
in self-service mode, and family members can make
online deposits as guests. "It's a work in progress,"
Ragan says. "We're working toward a single-sign-on portal
that will provide a single window to both the student
information system bursar bill and the One Card
debit card system."
Also in 2006 (April), Kansas State University adopted an e-billing system from Cashnet to offer students more convenience
and create efficiencies for the university.
"The process of generating 20,000 statements
and paying for mailing services has been cut out,"
says Jim Badders, KSU's assistant controller.
KSU has rolled out the Cashnet system's features
gradually, and continues to look for new
student convenience features from the vendor.
The school now sends students e-mails when
their statements are available to view, and if a bill
hasn't been viewed within two weeks, another
e-mail is automatically generated reminding the
student that his bill is ready. Students can
request that an additional user such as a parent
receive the e-mail notifications as well. The application
offers students a real-time view of any
changes that have been made to their accounts,
and students also can make payments online via e-check or credit card, and sign up for payment plans
(which Badders says is becoming increasingly popular
since the economic downturn).
But even online self-service modules can come under the
fire of demanding students, who are impatient with clunky
web design. Stanford University (CA) administrators, who
heard from students that the school's online enrollment
process was too slow and took too many steps, are now
seeking student input as the university develops mobile
phone applications, including the first native application for
the iPhone designed to work with an
online tuition and bill payment system. "We are empowering
students to get involved in designing the way they
receive their services-- in a secure way," says Tim Flood,
director of student affairs information systems.
In fact, Stanford actually has hired a group of students to
design an iStanford suite of iPhone apps, including a version
of its ePay online billing and payment service.
For three years, Stanford has been using ePay from Nelnet, and Flood says it
has simplified several steps in the bill-paying process.
"[The new process] makes it much clearer to students
when a bill is due," he says. The system eliminates sending
paper forms, because on the 20th of each month it notifies
students and parents via e-mail that their online bill is available
Now the university hopes the iPhone version being
developed by the students (who cofounded San Francisco-based Terriblyclever Design) will
take that convenience factor to a new level. The ePay application
for the iPhone and iPod Touch will sync with students'
existing ePay accounts and allow them to check
their balances, view an itemized breakdown of past statements,
and set alerts for upcoming payments.
Stanford University students told administrators that the
online enrollment process was too slow and clunky;
the school is now seeking their input as it develops mobile
phone apps, including a first for the iPhone designed to
work with online tuition and bill pay.
Terriblyclever's six employees, all Stanford students, are
taking some time off from school to work on iStanford, says
cofounder Kayvon Beykpour. He says the project was really
the brainchild of University Registrar Thomas Black, who
had a vision of empowering students through mobile technology.
"He had this generalized ambition, and our job was
to make that more concrete," Beykpour says. To decide
which applications to work on first, the designers talked to
some fellow students and brainstormed among themselves.
"That's where it's so helpful to be students," he adds,
"because we know which services are available and which
would be great to have mobile."
Although work is well under way on the ePay application,
Beykpour does not have an official rollout date set. "We
have to work with a sophisticated infrastructure that is
already in place and make sure the authentication and
security work," he says. "We are providing the user interface
for processing transactions, but there are many steps
to finalize security protocols."
Flood says the university's chief concern is security. "We
have to take privacy and confidentiality seriously," he
explains. "We have FERPA [Family Educational Rights and
Privacy Act] and other legal obligations to meet, so the
iPhone application has to meet the same stringent security
requirements that our portal does."
Although its own bill payment system is still a work in
progress, Montclair State has its eye on the future. Its Campus
Connect project has been offering students Rave
Wireless mobile applications for
several years, and the school's technology executives envision
eventual adoption of near field communication (NFC)
for mobile payment transactions. (NFC is a wireless technology
that allows for the exchange of data between a cell
phone and a card reader, at a distance of about four inches.
Currently, it is widely used in Asia for functions such as
rail ticketing and payment systems.) Ragan notes that
MSU's vendor, Blackboard, has begun work with Sony on NFC applications for the US higher
Still, MSU Vice President for IT Ed Chapel admits, "Near
field technology hasn't matured enough yet; the Asian markets
have a leg up on us there. But that continues to be the
vision-- the prize we have our eyes on."
Andrew Yu, the project leader of MIT's MIT Mobile project,
is interested in looking into NFC as well. An upcoming
version of MIT Mobile will allow students to manage their
TechCash debit card accounts from their BlackBerry,
iPhone, or Windows Mobile devices. Yu says the fact that more mobile devices are supporting X.509 public key infrastructure
certificates allows MIT to explore ways to provide
personalized financial information in a secure manner. "Say
you are standing in line at a campus food vendor, waiting to
eat, and you have a low balance on your TechCash
account. Today you'd have to go to a laptop to be able to
transfer $100 from some other account," he points out.
"But with this new version of MIT Mobile, you'll be able to
make that transaction standing in line with your iPhone."
Yu notes that students in Asian countries already are
used to paying for transportation and meals using their
mobile devices, and he would like MIT to pioneer that in
this country. In countries like Japan and South Korea, the
mobile carriers and governments have worked together to
guide advancement. "They have a 'build it first and they will
come' mentality," Yu explains. "Also, they have reached 99
percent saturation with cell phones and are looking for
other ways to add value."
Nick Jones, a Gartner VP focused on
mobile and wireless business, believes there are many other
features that universities will provide to students before they
focus on mobile payments. "The standards issues that have
to be worked out before mobile payments become more
commonplace will be addressed in the society at large,
rather than on campuses," he says. Jones also notes that the
drive for mobile payments in the US is pretty weak at the
moment. "Only about 10 percent of people surveyed say
they want to pay for things with their cell phones."
But Stanford's Flood insists that his university will deliver
more mobile services to its student population, regardless
of whether they are commercially available. "This is
how 18- to 24-year-olds want to access information,
whether the vendors are ready or not," he says. "If they are
not, then we have to develop our own strategies."
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