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ePay Anywhere

Self-service bill pay may soon extend to the mobile phone.

ePay AnywhereIT'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 for viewing.

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."

Looking Ahead

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 education market.

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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