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It's not easy winning over a skeptic

Pennsylvania College of Technology finds a partner whose refund management system exceeds anything it could build itself

Pennsylvania College of Technology has always used in-house programmers to develop its administrative and enrollment programs with great success. At one time the college was even considering designing its own electronic refund system.

So when Higher One approached Penn College, to gauge interest in an electronic refund management system, Eric Ranck, the college’s manager of cash and investments, was wary.

“At first I blew them off, because we always do everything ourselves, and our systems are better than any others I’ve seen,” he says.

Disbursing refunds electronically was an important goal for the college, a special missions affiliate of The Pennsylvania State University offering degrees in more than 100 fields focused on applied technologies in Williamsport, Pa. With 6,680 students, Penn College issued over 15,000 checks a year to refund $20 million. Students would wait in line to receive their checks, which were sometimes as high as $10,000 or $12,000, then cash them at the bank across the street.

"I'm a skeptical person when it comes to third-party systems, [but] we couldn't find anything we didn't like."

It was especially hectic at the start of the semester. “We’d have to call the bank a week ahead of time so they could bring in a million dollars in cash and put a police officer in the parking lot to handle the flow of students,” Ranck says. “Lines were too long, and it wasn’t safe for students to be carrying around that much cash.”

The more Ranck learned about how the Higher One OneDisburse Refund Management service worked, the more intrigued he became, particularly by the offer of online bank accounts with no minimum balance, no monthly fee, and a linked debit card. “I’m a skeptical person when it comes to third-party systems,” he says. “I figured there had to be holes somewhere.”

Ultimately, Ranck interviewed seven colleges using Higher One’s services. “We couldn’t find anything we didn’t like,” he says.

Once the contracts were signed, Ranck was impressed with how well Higher One directed and organized the implementation process. “Changing the culture of the campus from generating and printing checks to a whole new system in a 12-week period is pretty remarkable,” he says.

Penn College issued its first electronic refunds in the fall of 2007. By early 2009, 91 percent of students were receiving funds electronically, and 76 percent were having their refunds deposited into a PCT OneAccount. Just considering the cost of checks and postage, the program paid for itself.

In addition to providing an efficient and cost-effective system, Higher One works “very, very hard at educating students in the world of finance,” Ranck says. “It’s more than just getting a refund on a card or money in an account.” Higher One provides students with links to information about improving their financial literacy on topics such as budgeting and balancing a checkbook.

The key, Ranck says, is getting students to look at the information, and Penn College developed some innovative approaches of its own. The Stall Wall Weekly, a student activities newsletter posted in restroom stalls all over campus?publishes a “tip of the week” from Higher One, explaining, for example, how parents can send funds to student accounts and how to set up mobile alerts.

Penn College’s in-house programmers also used their own ingenuity to increase participation. When students log in to the college’s secure system, those who have not activated their PCT OneCard receive an alert reminding them to do so or their refunds cannot be deposited.

One of Ranck’s concerns as he considered signing up with Higher One was the company’s rapid growth. Penn College was the company’s 71st client in May 2007. By early 2009, 269 clients were on board.

“I have not noticed any difference in service despite them tripling in size,” he says. “They always make you feel welcome.”