Tuition Billing Season: Put Your Counseling Skills to Work

Melissa Maichle .

Whether you work in financial aid or student billing, you dread the calls that come this time of year. They start, “I just got my bill and I don’t know how I’m going to pay it because…” What follows the ‘because’ may spur you to use your professional judgement authority* or just cause you to shake your head in frustration, but either way the caller deserves the same outstanding customer service you always provide. This may be the same old song and dance to us, but to each caller it is a humbling, sometimes mortifying, experience.

The easier cases — let’s face it, none of them are easy — involve recent changes in the family’s or student’s finances and in the best-case scenario, professional judgement decisions can result in higher federal or state grant eligibility or additional institutional funding if there’s any left in your budget. But, much of the time even being able to increase eligibility for financial aid won’t result in any or enough additional funding. This is when you put your counseling skills to work!

A good place to start is with the philosophy behind the need analysis — the student (and their parents if dependent) are primarily responsible for higher education costs and should pay, to the extent they are able, from past income (savings), current income (payment plan) and future income (borrowing). Resources for paying the bill may need to be cobbled together from many possibilities much like a financial aid award is put together, so just because the family doesn’t have enough saved to pay the whole bill, they may still have something saved, so identify that first.

Assuming not enough savings is what prompted the call in the first place, the next question is really two-fold; Is this situation permanent or temporary? If the latter, is your institution willing to defer the remaining tuition payment if the balance can be paid before the end of the term or the end of the academic year? If the situation is more permanent, what if the balance was broken down into smaller monthly payments? Most institutions either have their own plan or partner with a company that administers a monthly payment plan. Starting a plan llate may require a larger ‘down payment’ but often allows families to pay using current income.

If possibilities one and two are not sufficient, it’s time to talk loans and not just what loans may be available, but also the likelihood of qualifying. By now you know what is causing the financial hardship. If you know the parent has filed for bankruptcy or is receiving public assistance, private loan programs are off the table and maybe PLUS loans as well. An example of a workable loan plan is a parent with “iffy” credit can try to get a PLUS loan to pay the rest of tuition and also housing charges. If denied, perhaps a grandparent is willing to act as an endorser. And if that still doesn’t work, the student, who lives locally, will commute and borrow the additional unsubsidized Direct Loan to pay off the rest of tuition. If you don’t consider the possibility of the loan being denied up front, you’re really just kicking the can down the road a couple of weeks.

In your interview, you may very well find that lack of resources is a long-term, irreversible situation and as hard as it may be, be honest with the family if you don’t believe your institution is a viable option for the student at that time. The response will likely be very emotional, but in the long run they will appreciate your candor.  Hopefully they’ll heed your advice and not be stuck with a tuition bill and no college credit.

Is your office overwhelmed with calls at this time of the year? Let our expert consultants give you a hand! Contact us at if we can help.

*For more information on professional judgement adjustments see the Application and Verification Guide, Chapter 5 or read our blog on the topic.