At the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, two related liberal arts institutions just miles apart near St. Cloud, Minn., the administrators who run the business offices are guided by Benedictine values. In fact, they leaned into one of those values when they made the move in early 2019 to replace the outdated software that supported student payments: Listening.
When the business officers decided to adopt Payee Choice, an innovative payment solution from U.S. Bank, they were listening to what students said they wanted and had come to expect in their daily lives: a hassle-free, digital payment experience.
What they didn’t realize at the time is that their decision would not only improve the student payment experience immediately upon implementation, but the new solution would also allow the schools and their students to pivot almost effortlessly when confronted with new issues and concerns — especially around issuing student refunds — created months later by the coronavirus pandemic.
When the schools’ administrators started looking to replace their outdated cashiering software, they had a clear goal in mind.
“The software we used for a decade allowed us to make student refunds by cutting a check on the spot or mailing students a check,” says David Schneider, director of student accounts at the College of Saint Benedict. “We were looking for a solution that offered students some of the different payment options they were often asking for beyond checks. Payee Choice was unique in the marketplace.”
The two colleges simultaneously adopted Payee Choice for the fall 2019 semester and began sending instructions for student payments to U.S. Bank, which emails a notification to students when they have a refund or other payment available. The email directs them to a website branded with the schools’ logos, where they choose how they would like to get paid going forward.
In the first year of use, the most popular electronic payment choices were Automated Clearing House (ACH) direct deposits and Zelle® . These options give the students quicker access to funds and eliminate the need for them to wait in line at the business office for a check and then deposit it. In fact, by choosing Zelle, with just a few taps on their mobile phone students can get money in their bank accounts almost instantly — without having to remember their bank account number details.
“We’re such a mobile society in this age group,” notes Michelle Hemmesch, director of student accounts at Saint John’s University. “Students expect everything to be done on their phones. And with Payee Choice, they’re able to do that.”
The timing of adopting Payee Choice just prior to the onset of the coronavirus was ideal, school administrators say. The pandemic presented unforeseen challenges that the new solution was suited perfectly to address.
When halfway through the spring 2020 semester the colleges shifted to remote-only learning, they needed a convenient way to deliver partial room-and-board refunds to students. Likewise, students who had returned home, some to foreign countries, needed a no-hassle way to receive those refunds. Payee Choice addressed both challenges with its electronic payment options — and saved the colleges time and money in the process.
“It would have been a lot of costly work to cut all those checks and mail them, but with Payee Choice, U.S. Bank was able to take care of that for us in a timely fashion,” Hemmesch says.
In addition, when the federal government responded to the pandemic with CARES Act emergency-relief grants, the two Benedictine colleges used Payee Choice to enable students to receive their grant payments of $350 to $1,200 through a convenient electronic method. “By disbursing those grants through U.S. Bank, we saved days if not weeks of work,” she says.
Payee Choice is meeting students’ expectations that financial transactions be mobile driven, paper free and instantaneous. One of the best indications it has been a success with students is that the administrators haven’t received any complaints about the new digital payments program, Schneider says.
“Sometimes silence is a good thing,” he notes. “On the other hand, we have had a few students, after accepting a direct deposit or Zelle payment, tell us they’re excited it’s so quick and easy.”
Adds his colleague Hemmesch: “Payee Choice may seem cutting edge to us, but the students are so immersed in their culture of everything is online and fast that a solution like this is just something they’ve come to expect.”
The process of getting up and running on Payee Choice went without a hitch, Schneider says. “We received plenty of attention and support from technical people at the bank. I found the process fast and the people extremely responsive,” he says. “We had a number of meetings to work out the details, and it was a very successful implementation.”
The big test for Payee Choice was when school started at the end of August 2019, and “it went very smoothly from the time students started requesting funds,” Hemmesch says. “It’s been a little over a year now and it just keeps getting easier.”
Hemmesch says adopting Payee Choice was a clear case of the business offices heeding the value of listening by considering students’ desire for convenient, digital methods of accepting payments. But two other Benedictine values played into the decision as well, she says.
One was stewardship. “Payee Choice helps us be good stewards of our students’ money, enabling us to deliver those funds to them as quickly as possible,” Hemmesch says.
The other pertinent value is stability. The schools have had deposit and treasury management relationships with U.S. Bank for about five years. “When we partner with U.S. Bank, we know we’re dealing with a tried-and-true, stable institution. We know them and have confidence in their products,” she says.