Paying a College Tuition Bill

The details on e-bills, setting up a parent payee account and payment options.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

Along with everything else that has changed about college over the last couple of decades, the tuition bill has evolved, too. Here’s a short guide to what’s on the bill and how to pay it.

Accessing the tuition bill Some colleges still mail paper bills home—to the student’s attention. But more and more schools use an e-billing system meaning you must go online to view the statement. A letter, postcard or email will be sent to your freshman explaining how to access her account. Ask her about it if she hasn’t mentioned receiving the information because the tuition payment is almost always due before classes start.

To see the bill, your teen needs to sign in to the Student Account Center on the college’s website. Ideally, your student has already set up her login. Once logged in, review the breakdown of the charges with her, not just the bottom line.

Reading a tuition bill Remember that charges are issued for one semester/trimester/quarter at a time. If you still find yourself facing sticker shock, hold on. Sometimes, the bill doesn’t reflect all the credits to your freshman’s account, like scholarships, grants and loans issued through the school.

In order for those to be applied, your student has to accept or decline each piece of his financial aid package online. Scholarships and grants don’t need to be repaid, so they might not require any action. But loans and work-study do need a response. If your freshman doesn’t need the loan this year, he shouldn’t accept it. He will likely be offered another one next year. (See my post on financial aid to understand what’s being offered before accepting or declining.) If you have questions, contact the financial aid or bursar’s office.

Deciphering a college tuition statement is similar to figuring out your cable or electric bill—lots of fees you don’t understand. Typical charges beyond tuition, room and board include smaller charges for student activities, transportation, labs and health care/wellness center. Your student may be able to opt out of the health care fee by providing proof that she already has health insurance.

Deciding who’s paying If your student is footing the bill, then he will pay via his student account. But if someone other than the student is covering college costs, your freshman must request or create an authorized payer account for that person. Multiple authorized payer accounts can be set up, helpful if each parent is covering a semester.

Paying the bill Colleges offer multiple ways to pay a tuition bill, even if it can only be viewed online. Schools generally accept a paper check or money order by mail or in-person, and an e-check or credit card online. The options are listed in the payment directions. Cash is only accepted for in-person payments, and paying by credit card almost always includes a percentage-based fee.

Colleges usually offer payment plans, as well, but there is a fee for signing up or per payment.

Making an electronic payment may require you to provide your checking account information, including routing number, so that the money can be withdrawn from your account.

Paying from a 529 account Your 529 plan should provide online instructions on how to pay your freshman’s tuition bill directly to the college. Confirm these directions by checking the college’s website or calling the bursar’s office.

In-state 529 plans can generally be paid electronically, but out-of-state might require the 529 program to issue a printed check and mail it to the college. In that case, you will need your student’s ID number and the address to mail the check because it may be different than for personal checks. Allow ample time for the check to be issued, mailed and posted.

Another option is to move the money from the 529 plan, electronically or by check, to your or your student’s (the beneficiary) checking account and then pay the college from that money. Transfer the exact amount or a little less to prevent any part of it from being considered a non-qualified withdrawal. Tuition payments (including the cost of room, board and fees) and textbooks are qualified withdrawals.

Finding answers College websites address most tuition questions on the parent portal, but use the search box or check the financial aid, bursar or student sites to learn more. If you can’t find the answer you need, call the bursar’s office.

Share any advice you have about dealing with the college tuition bill in the comments section below.

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