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How campuses are streamlining payment planning

Accurate accounting and reporting of payments made across campus are essential—but not always easy tasks
University Business, December 2013
At the University of Alabama, athletics fans can check out the Bryant Museum, covering UA sports history. It’s just one of several revenue-generating spots on campus where payments are made.
At the University of Alabama, athletics fans can check out the Bryant Museum, covering UA sports history. It’s just one of several revenue-generating spots on campus where payments are made.

From the sale of tickets to athletic or performing arts events, to housing and parking fees and fines, as well as merchandise sales and event sponsorships, there are myriad alternative sources of revenue coming in to various departments on a given campus throughout the year.

Accurately accounting for these nontuition payments is vital, since many of these departments rely on these funds to sustain their operations. At the same time, this revenue flows in from so many directions and so many hands that tracking it all is a challenging proposition.

This is why more colleges and universities are exploring ways to centralize the accounting of revenue generated by departments across campus. But without the appropriate technology, meeting this objective is unlikely.

David Carson, vice president of business and finance for Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., can attest to this. When he came on board five years ago, there were big issues in payment tracking. “We really didn’t know who was collecting what,” he says. “Some people were using their own accounting system that didn’t interface into our authorized system. Some were keeping information on paper and Excel spreadsheets, and some were not keeping records at all.”

There were also internal control weaknesses that compromised reporting accuracy, which undermined the institution’s forecasting and budgeting efforts.

But now, Carson rates the confidence level in the institution’s revenue numbers as “very high.” The difference is that several systems are being used to help manage these payments. Housing and tuition go through a TouchNet system. Parking goes through a T2 Systems product. The remaining departments use TouchNet Marketplace. Funds from each of these systems are pulled nightly into the university’s ERP system, Banner by Ellucian.

Carson says they continue to explore and embrace new payment strategies. “As technology changes we always need to ask what we can do better, how we can serve better, and what we can do with the data we have,” he says.

Other colleges and universities are doing the same, intensifying their efforts to better manage nontuition payments. Though some of these initiatives are still works in progress, their stories highlight practices worth considering.

University of Hartford: Heading toward paperless

“At the moment, we’re kind of a mixed bag of practices,” says Jim Mello, assistant provost for academic administration, budget, and planning at the University of Hartford. “Some departments are working within our established online billing system; others are moving in that direction. Still others rely on old-fashioned personal attention and paper transactions.”

The university implemented e-billing via CashNet in 2009. Departments working within this system collaborate with the Bursar’s Office and Information Technology Services staff to assign account information to incoming payments. Paper transactions are managed through the bursar’s office.

“While paper transactions are completed with personal attention, there can be errors, lost slips, etc.,” says Mello. “The paper process is typically done as a convenience to program participants, but increasingly, there’s a demand to go paperless.”

One best practice has been the coordination of their processes through their Red Flag Identity Theft Committee, formed in 2009 to minimize the risk of identity theft and data loss. The committee is comprised of representatives from finance, IT services, the bursar, the registrar, student affairs, academic affairs, public safety, and financial aid.

The need to maintain proper safeguards and accounting procedures is fueling the transition to online processes, says Mello. “This change is necessary not only to improve our stewardship of resources but also to improve our administrative productivity; improvements that allow us to spend more time enriching our programmatic offerings.”

Manhattanville College: Expanding an online payments presence

Significant sources of nontuition revenue at Manhattanville College in the New York City suburbs include rental payments for nonstudent housing and camps, as well as for special events and donor gifts, says Erik Paulson, assistant vice president of finance. Smaller amounts are generated through student-related activities.

Most of these come as cash or check, with a few in-person credit card payments, and are run through the student accounts office. Some offices have an online presence through which payments can be made, but in general, departments receive the payments and bring them to student accounts processing. Departments are encouraged to drop off payments at the end of each day, says Paulson.

Accounting for funds works fairly smoothly, since deposits are easily matched up to the general ledger entries. However, requiring daily visits to the student accounts office makes the process more difficult. Paulson would also like to make it easier for their constituencies to pay online.

“Our students are able to make online payments that link directly to our general ledger system and their accounts,” he says. “We’d like to do something similar for our vendors and suppliers, and students looking to pay for items not charged to their student accounts. ... If set up well, [an online payments system] would also reduce the staff workload, and that’s an improvement we’re always looking for.”

Savannah State University: Tickets tracking

Much of the nontuition revenue at Savannah State comes from event ticket sales, explains Edward Jolley, vice president of business and financial affairs. The bursar’s office has established a uniform cash handling and check counting process.

In addition, the office created a form providing the ability to match the number of tickets sold to the revenue collected, as well as accounts for the number of tickets given away as promotions, says Jolley. Tickets can also be purchased by credit card, either online or on-site, a capability created about three years ago through Nelnet.

Students assist in payment collection for activities and club events, but for departments that require money handling, such as athletics, transactions are only completed by bonded staff.

Ultimately, nontuition revenue ends up at the bursar’s office, which tracks, manages and deposits the funds, and reports to the controller, says Jolley.

Several times a year the bursar’s office conducts cash-handling training programs. Departments are also audited to ensure their compliance with cash-handling procedures.

Valencia College: Accommodating differences

For some institutions, various departments can handle incoming funds using different systems—without major hiccups. This is the case at Valencia College in Orlando for its Performing Arts Center, Conferencing, and Dental Hygiene departments, which generate the bulk of the nontuition revenue, according to Keith Houck, vice president for operations and finance.

Dental Hygiene clinic transactions are entirely over the counter. Cashiering stations—connected to Valencia’s primary cashiering system—can electronically swipe credit cards and issue receipts. This department uses the same cashiering system as the business office so data is transferred to the accounting system through a nightly automated batch interface process, says Houck.

Vendini, a third-party box office software vendor, processes all ticket payments for the Performing Arts Center. Checks and credit cards are electronically processed through this vendor’s website, says Houck. “Cash received during the night of a performance is also recorded in the third-party system, and this amount is deducted from the remittance amount.”

A monthly remittance is deposited directly into Valencia’s checking account. Cash is deposited through the business office and recorded via the regular cashiering system. Box Office staff assist in reconciling the receipts from the third-party vendor using an event report they receive. “We rely on the Box Office staff to confirm the accuracy of the ticket sales,” Houck says. “The finance department reviews the summary for reasonableness based on the schedule of performances.”

Conferencing uses PayPal for online credit card processing. After reconciliation by that department, Houck’s office draws funds from the PayPal account, for which only finance staff have the password. Those funds get deposited into the college account. Checks are processed at the business office of West Campus.

Finance is the only entity having access to all systems processing cash and is the only one that can update banking information in the system. End users can process transactions, but otherwise have limited system access.

Houck says the various systems were based on department requirements. For example, payments for dental services are entirely in-person. Consequently, there was no need to create an online payment capability. Conferencing, however, did require an online payment functionality that would enable participants who registered online to pay online as well. Performing Arts wanted a “front-end and back-end system,” since their business needs requires them to generate electronic tickets for patrons and to be able to receive online payments.

“Each department head came up with their own strategy,” says Houck. “After a solution was identified, the department head worked with the finance staff to ensure the system would work as expected, and to implement internal controls and devise business procedures.”

The University of Alabama: Centralized payment processing

All required charges, and additional student charges incurred during the term, go through the University of Alabama’s Office of Student Receivables. This wasn’t always the case; UA was once much more decentralized, says Carlene Jones, director, receivables and collection. “As a result, the revenue-generating that occurred in various departments was handled however the untrained personnel managed it.”

Instructors or departments collected funds from students to cover costs outside normal student billing. Departments established “businesses” selling items without approval, creating the potential for numerous violations and liabilities, as well as entering into ventures not in UA’s best interest overall, says Jones.

UA has close to 300 revenue-generating operations—some very large like athletics; some small, like geology map sales. There are also numerous other revenue sources, such as concerts, theater productions, museum admissions.

“We realized that while nonfinancial departments were usually very good at accomplishing their primary mission, they needed financial expertise help since their actions related to the collection of funds could inadvertently damage UA’s name or create a liability,” Jones says. “Additionally, without centralization, credit card contracts were costing small departments too much. At the same time we didn’t want to discourage the entrepreneurial spirit that exists on our campus.”

UA implemented a series of changes, staged over a long period. These included new policies and procedures specific to revenue-generating operations, credit card operations, and eCommerce ventures.

“This centralized approach has worked well,” says Jones. “And at the same time, it has allowed departments to explore and pursue their interest in generating revenue for their departments.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.