Tired of refund checks 'lost in the mail," an Iowa college goes all-electronic
When it came time to mail financial aid refund checks at Des Moines Area Community College each semester, officials always worried about how many of those checks the post office would return as undeliverable. With nearly 27,000 students attending more than 3,000 classes on six campuses, it was inevitable that many of those students would have forgotten to inform the school of a new address.
As the problems with mailing checks mounted, administrators at DMACC decided it was time to go another direction. They surveyed the student body to learn more about how they would like to receive refunds.
“The students wanted to receive their refunds quicker by electronic means, and administratively it was becoming more and more of a time burden to issue all those checks. Plus, we did not have a back up check printer and sealers in the event of equipment problems,” explained Ben Voaklander, assistant controller at DMACC.
With the knowledge that students would prefer to receive their refunds electronically, DMACC began to search for a company that would help make the college’s refund disbursement process more efficient. The school had considered implementing its own system, but rejected that option as cost prohibitive. Ultimately DMACC chose to partner with Higher One, which gives students a refund card that doubles as a college ID. “We wanted an official college photo ID, and Higher One could wrap everything we wanted into one card,” Voaklander said.
Every student at DMACC is sent a card in the mail. This card is the key to choice. Students use their card number to log onto a secure website to confirm their address and select a method to receive their financial aid refund.
DMACC chose to establish an electronic-only refund policy. This means that students can choose between two electronic options: direct deposit to their OneAccount, a no-monthly-fee, nominimum- balance, FDIC-insured checking account provided by Higher One, or an ACH transfer to an existing bank account. The decision to go electronic-only was made after the Department of Education published new regulations concerning the distribution of Title IV funds that encourage electronic delivery to students.
To educate students on this process, DMACC was proactive with its efforts. “Our marketing effort included emails, postcard mailings, auto-dialer phone calls, and posting Higher One marketing materials on campus,” stated Voaklander.
In order to send a refund through Higher One the College sends Higher One a flat file with student names and refund amounts in addition to a wire for the total amount of the disbursement. Higher One markets the program to students, collects, maintains, and protects student banking information, distributes refunds, handles bounced ACH payments and returned checks, and fields any refund related customer service inquiry.
In just over a year of distributing refunds through Higher One, DMACC has issued 83 percent of refunds to students electronically. Of these payments, 71 percent have been direct deposited into a OneAccount. The difference is obvious to those in the business office.
“We don’t have all the returned checks and reissuing that we used to have,” said Voaklander. “There also have been fewer phone calls about why the post office hasn’t delivered the students’ checks.”