For some schools, one of the many benefits of using a tuition management provider is so the school does not have to absorb the cost of a credit card transaction for tuition and/or fee payments.

While there are many “merchant service providers” available from which to choose if the school has been absorbing the transaction fee, many have different fee structures based on the amount of the transaction, which credit card is used, and how many transactions take place per month.

Some may even have a “per transaction” fee in addition to the percentage.  Keeping track of the various percentages and service charges can make payment reconciliation extremely difficult, frustrating and time-consuming, which is why using a tuition and billing management provider helps to make this process easier from both the policy and calculated school revenue perspectives.

If the school absorbs the cost of the transaction, parents are more likely to use credit cards, which could significantly impact the amount of revenue your school has planned to receive in its budgeting process.

Until recently, schools could use a tuition management provider to put the responsibility of fee payment back to the parent paying the tuition.  This “convenience fee” model had been honored by 3 of the 4 major credit card providers, since VISA did not permit convenience fee transactions for recurring payments.  A few years ago, VISA allowed tuition-charging schools to pass this fee along to the consumer with recurring payments under a program called “Service Fee.”  So long as the transactions processed by VISA does not exceed a certain threshold as determined by the processor, the processing fee can be passed along to the consumer in most States in the country, with some stipulations.  For instance, the fee can be passed along to the consumer, but only if the exact dollar amount is disclosed.  The merchant can’t just say “a small percentage” or something similar.

However, the courts of some States have ruled that charging the fee back to the payer is not lawful.  The merchant (in this case, your school) is paying a small percentage of the transaction so the majority of the amount charged is forwarded to the school quickly, and convenience and expedience comes with a cost.  The prevailing thought is that the merchant should be willing to accept this small fee in order to secure the full amount of the payment that’s due.  Unfortunately, since it’s not known how many parents will want to use their credit card from year to year, and since banking laws and credit card fees are always in a state of flux, most schools find it difficult to budget for credit card fees.

What makes matters even more difficult is when financial aid enters into the equation.

In the past, credit card utilization was frowned upon by many faith-based schools because their administrators did not want to require parents to go into debt to fulfill their tuition payment obligation.  Today, credit cards carry with them incentive programs (like airline travel miles or cash back rebates) so their usage provides a benefit to the parent.  Further, the mindset of today’s parent is quite different from the mindset of the parent of 20 years ago.

If tuition is $9,000 for two students at the school, then it would be advantageous for the parent to receive the airline miles that $9,000 would provide for them.  However, if the school doesn’t want to lose $270 (considering 3.00% as a potential merchant fee) of the $9,000 if it’s been deemed that the fee cannot be redirected to a tuition-paying parent, then what’s a school to do?  If there are 100 families in this situation, then is your school able to absorb the loss of $27,000 in budgeted revenue to the credit card processor?

Here’s a suggestion.  After working on your budget, and setting your tuition schedule in place, add 3% to the figure.  Then, if a parent wants to pay in full by writing a check, your school can offer that parent an “upfront payment incentive” which is budgeted for!

Many schools I visit offer a $50, $100, or a percentage incentive (notice I did not use the word “discount” – even though the majority of schools unfortunately still call it a discount) for paying tuition in full and upfront before the school year begins.  While that’s considered to be a great incentive for the parent by the school, it is oftentimes simply seen as a way to improve the school’s cash flow at the start of the school year, and, since there’s no way of knowing precisely how many parents will choose to pay upfront, such a program is rarely budgeted for.

If you increase your tuition by 3% before publishing it, your school can offer families a 2% or 2.5% incentive if they pay upfront with a direct debit or via an invoiced payment with a check.  If they pay with a credit card or over the course of the year, or even for the one-time charge, then the credit card fee has been budgeted for.

Here’s an example.  Let’s take that parent paying $4500 for each of their two children as mentioned above.  Let’s say your school offers a $100 incentive per child if the $4,500 is paid in full and upfront.  $100 of $4,500 is 2.22%…but $4500 per child is what’s really needed as a result of the actual tuition a parent will pay added to the amount of financial aid they’ll receive.  If that’s the case, it’s generous of you to give the parent a $100 price break, but you may not know where that extra $100 will come from to balance your budget.  Some school administrators have mentioned that less financial aid can be awarded to make up for the difference – but that’s not necessarily right either.  Perhaps you’ll need another fundraiser to cover the cost…but do you really want to have another fundraiser?

Further, if the parent wants to pay that $4,400 ($4,500 with a $100 incentive) with a credit card, and your school doesn’t want to charge the parent the credit card fee, then you’ll need to determine how you’ll compensate for another $130 (if your credit card fee is set at 3%).   Therefore, your school is not receiving $4,500 for this student; it’s receiving $4,270 from the upfront incentive and the fee your school will be giving the credit card company…and that’s only 95% of what your school’s budget needs.

By the way, if you’re still questioning if your school is a business or not, this exercise should remove all doubt that it is (in addition to being a ministry and being a school, too)!

If you add 3% of $4,500 ($135) to the $4,500 of tuition, your school’s tuition now becomes $4,635.  That’s advantageous for a couple of reasons.  First, if you offer a payment plan of 10 months, any parent can do “10 math” in their mind, and calculate their monthly tuition payment to be $450.  If you offer a 9 month payment plan, $4,500 is easily divisible by 9 to the tune of $500 per month.  $4,635 makes mental math a little more difficult to do, and keeps the conversation focused on the educational environment, rather than on the parents’ wallet.  You’ll hear more about those advantages in an upcoming article.

With your tuition now at $4,635, you can offer parents a little more than a 2.9% incentive by giving them $135 if they pay in full, before the school year starts, and pay with a check or a direct debit from a savings or checking account.  If they pay over time, or if they pay in full with a credit card, there is no percentage provided, and the fee from the credit card usage (as long as it’s less than that incentive rate shown above) is already budgeted for.

This is great for those parents that pay in full.  But what if you award copious amounts of financial aid?

Glad you asked!

Keep in mind that your “calculated cost” figure is actually $4,500, and award financial aid based on that figure, and not the $4,635 figure.  Is the result the same as what was mentioned above?  It could be, but the mindset and the terminology are completely different.

For instance, if the parent receives $2,500 in financial aid, when you deduct it from the “announced tuition” of $4,635, the parent will be expected to pay $2,135.  3% of $2,135 is $64.05, so your school would be receiving a total of $2,070.95, which is a little more than the $2,000 in revenue which would have resulted if you awarded $2,500 in financial aid and the “announced tuition” was $4,500.

This is where it’s important to remember three things:

  1. Credit card fees can change based on the cards you accept.  This scenario works well for MasterCard, VISA and Discover, but may not work for American Express since their rates are sometimes significantly higher.  This is why it makes sense to use a tuition and billing management partner, where the fee is the same across all the major credit card brands.  Then you’re keeping your methodology consistent, since charging different tuition based on credit card rates can be viewed in a negative light.  Your policy needs to be consistent.
  2. “A little more” means you don’t have to find ways to make up for “a little less.”
  3. The more aid you award to a family, the less they’ll be charged, and the less the credit card percentage will be…but that will mean that more enrolled students will be necessary whose families can pay a larger percentage of the tuition, and many times, it’s the families who pay higher tuition amounts who want to take advantage of the credit card perks.

Today’s parents like incentives.  It has a positive connotation, where the word “discount” has a negative one.  If you can offer them a cash incentive, and their credit card provider can offer them the perks of membership, then you can create a more positive revenue environment in your school than what would result by telling a parent they can’t use their credit cards, and then hoping to make up the revenue from another source – such as another fundraiser – to balance the budget.

Of course, if you have a payment device at your school to accept credit cards, your school is not using a tuition management provider, and your state laws permit you to pass the credit card fee along to the consumer, you are doing WAY more work than you need to – or losing a lot more money than you realize.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2014-2023