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Enhancing Student Experience Through Digital Payment Systems

The Digital World Comes to Campus: Enhancing the student experience through digital payment systems    

Over the last few years, colleges and universities have moved quickly to innovate, digitalizing many aspects of academics and campus life. The resulting changes to the college experience have not dampened enthusiasm for higher education, which remains high.1 However, global cost-of-living increases have impacted students and their families, whose high expectations for online educational experiences extend to tuition payments and the support schools provide in navigating payment plans. 

With these dynamics at play, university administrators are discovering the need to stay attuned to an array of evolving trends that have the potential to impact payments. Fortunately, advancements in payments technology provide universities with opportunities to enhance their digital capabilities in ways that can help attract and retain students. By offering intuitive and streamlined payment experiences, they can help boost students’ confidence in paying tuition and finishing their degree programs.

“To meet the economic challenges of the 2020s, universities have developed new ways of managing services and budgets to better adjust to shifts in revenue,” says Ellie Smith, Global Head of Digital Acceptance at Discover® Global Network. “Now schools can build on those changes in ways that support their students and address issues such as inflation, staffing shortages, budget shortfalls, and the rising cost of higher education.”

Digital flexibility and guidance improve the student experience

Before 2020, many institutions operated on legacy computer systems built on the premise that students and administrators were present on campus for most transactions. Advancing payment capabilities had been a low priority. That changed dramatically when both local and international students faced the challenge of navigating classes and tuition payments remotely during pandemic-related campus closures in 2020.

Universities quickly adapted to deliver the flexibility and automation required. By tapping outside platforms and bringing robust solutions in-house, these institutions found ways to provide the agility and remote administration needed for their suppliers, clients, and students.

Universities now accommodate a growing mix of on-campus and remote students, staff, and faculty, and hybrid learning programs are popular.2 This digital flexibility in academics has extended to how universities manage payments and receivables. Offering students an easy-to-understand payment process that includes options to tailor plans to their financial needs is now an important part of maintaining a trusting relationship between institutions and families.

Furthermore, in an era with abundant choices, students are looking to institutions to simplify the payment experience and provide guidance on how to pay. According to a recent survey from Flywire, a leading provider of digital education payments solutions that works with Discover® Global Network, 90% of international students said access to a simplified payment process would improve their higher education experience—up 77% from the previous year’s survey. 75% of those surveyed believe having fewer payment provider options for education expenses would make the payment process easier, and four out of five students said having an institution or education recruitment agent recommend the payment provider would simplify their process.3 

“We know that a student’s payment experience directly impacts their overall university experience, but the process can be cumbersome and confusing,” says Sharon Butler, Executive Vice President of Education at Flywire. “There is a huge opportunity for institutions to provide the critical guidance students need to set their academic experiences up for success from that very first touchpoint.”

Enabling international student payments benefits universities’ financial health

The inclusion of students from various backgrounds and cultures has long been a key element of diversity sought by institutions to broaden the on-campus educational experience. Today, international students are integral to the financial ecosystems of universities and their surrounding communities—during the 2022-23 academic year, international students studying at colleges in the United States contributed $40.1 billion to the country’s economy.

The ways international students prefer to make payments—from payment timing to transaction methods—can differ among countries of origin depending on families and local culture. While many students across the globe are concerned about obtaining a visa for their studies, affordability is also top of mind, with four in five students saying they need help affording their education.3

Traditionally, international students have been less eligible for extended or flexible payment plans. However, given the new environment and global economic pressures, schools now seek to incorporate more flexible and affordable options for cross-border students, including pausing fees and offering refunds. 78% of institutions say this flexibility for international students is either “important” or “very important.”5

Schools have increasingly deployed automated software that integrates back-office systems with student information to address students’ concerns and streamline payments. This software can deliver real-time communication if, for example, student payments fall behind, making it possible for schools to work with families up-front to discuss their options.

Affordability impacts student payment preferences

Students worldwide are experiencing the impact of affordability on payments. Almost two-thirds of undergraduate students are considering ways to ease the financial burden of their education, such as taking time off from school or switching to a part-time program,3 and sudden changes in their family’s financial circumstances may impact their ability to make tuition payments on schedule.

Additionally, parents today feel they need more preparation to pay for college. A 2023 survey by Discover® Financial Services found that nearly three-quarters (70%) of parents with college-bound children in the United States worry about having enough funds to cover college costs.6 An earlier survey, also conducted for Discover Financial Services, found that 48% of parents in the U.S. lost income during the Covid-19 pandemic, with 44% saying they could not afford to pay as much of their child’s education as they had planned.7

Affordability of tuition and fees is top-of-mind for students globally, too. In the Flywire survey, 45% of students cited financial difficulties as the leading cause of stress when making an educational payment, followed by unclear payment processes (25%), a lack of convenient payment options (21%), and too many competing payment options (14%).3 These stressors are considerably complex for cross-border students who have traditionally paid for tuition and expenses via wire service or international bank transfers.

Both traditional and nontraditional students are looking for simpler payment processes and flexible payment plans, and universities will discover that tuition adjustments must continue to be responsive to diverse student needs. Payment plans, for instance, allow families and students to plan and budget for educational expenses over time, and institutions can use software to ease plan signup and management while streamlining the payment process. However, demand for payment plans is currently outstripping supply. 80% of students said paying in installments would make their education more affordable, but only 60% said their institution offered the option to do so.3

Enrollment changes challenge revenue and liquidity

Similar to the need for flexibility around tuition payments, universities also benefit from having reliable and accurate payment data to forecast revenue and balance liquidity.           
“The question of cash flow is big,” Butler said. “Balancing expectations of how many new students enroll, whether existing students will stay, and how to deliver valuable education must be addressed and managed.”

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in 2023, undergraduate enrollment in the United States rose for the first time since the pandemic. The center’s report found that undergraduate enrollment grew 1.2% in 2023 compared to the prior year, an increase of roughly 176,000 students nationally.8 

Although undergraduate enrollment is back up, staffing at colleges and universities is not. Across higher education, 200 U.S. institutions let 50,000 workers go during the pandemic, but most have not been replaced.9 This trend continued the past four years with additional public and private universities cutting jobs and announcing hiring freezes in 2024.10

To continue providing students with an outstanding educational experience, schools may overcome staffing challenges by automating more of the manual work associated with administration and giving staff more time to spend on tasks where students need their attention most.

Looking to the future

With trends in payments toward digital commerce and online transactions occurring worldwide—compounded periodically by unforeseen events—the need for payment agility will only increase. Factors like enrollment, retention, and affordability may change suddenly, impacting tuition payment schedules. Understanding those needs and remaining aware of marketplace trends requires attention and flexibility. Universities can prepare by ensuring they have the right partners and digital tools.

“Institutions of higher education are at the forefront of accelerating these digital advances for students and their families,” said Ellie Smith at Discover Global Network. “We look forward to continuing to assist, helping to further collaboration and provide payment flexibility throughout this space.”

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1.    (2022). Passport to higher education: Global students' perspectives on paying tuition and more. Flywire. Accessed 19 March 2024 from
2.    (2023, August 15). CHLOE 8: Student Demand Moves Higher Ed Toward a Multi-Modal Future. Quality Matters. Accessed 19 March 2024 from
3.    (2023). Unlocking the door to higher education: Global students' perspectives on paying tuition and more. Flywire. Accessed 8 April 2024 from
4.    NAFSA: Association of International Educators. (2023). The United States of America: benefits from international students. Accessed 02 May 2024 from
5.    (2020). Save Overseas Studies: COVID-19’s impact on students, institutions, and the economy. Flywire. Accessed 12 April 2023 from
6.    (2023, June 7).  70% of Parents with College-Bound Children Are Worried About Having Enough Money to Pay for College. Discover Financial Services. Accessed 19 March 2024 from
7.    (September 2020). Nearly 40% of Parents Who Didn’t Plan to Apply for Federal Aid Now Say They Will as a Result of Covid-19 Pandemic. Discover Financial Services. Accessed 19 March 2024 from
8.    Weissman, Sarah. (2024, January 24). Enrollments Rise After Pandemic-Related Declines. Inside Higher Ed. Accessed 19 March 2024 from
9.    Garrant, Jim. How to best support student payment needs with staffing shortfalls. Flywire. Accessed 19 March 2024 from
10.    Moody, Josh. (2024, January 25). 2024 Begins With Wave of Job Cuts. Inside Higher Ed. Accessed 19 March 2024 from

The information provided herein is sponsored by Discover® Global Network. It is intended for informational purposes, and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice.