University’s billing process must be more transparent for students, families

As a high school senior last year, my mind went through a series of rollercoasters as I dreamed about my soon-to-be college life. But the excitement quickly dissipated when it came time to pay for it. Since my parents went to college outside of the United States, we had no idea how the tuition payments worked.

After not receiving any explicit instructions from the University, I started browsing online for answers. I figured out through the University’s website that there are two payment methods that both use eBill – an online tool for paying your tuition. You can either pay your entire bill upfront before the start of the semester, or you can enroll in the monthly payment plan – which my family opted to do. Although choosing a payment plan was relatively straightforward once I knew where to pay, when it came to understanding what was on my bills, there was confusion and discrepancies. I had no resources to turn to like tutorial videos or step-by-step explanations on the University’s website detailing eBill payments. When I looked at my bill at the start of the semester and later when my bill unexpectedly changed, I felt like I had nowhere to turn. There is a lack of transparency about what constitutes the cost of attendance at GW, and I have experienced hidden fees after struggling to find answers in the financial aid office.

Aside from the hidden charges, the whole payment process tends to be hard to follow.

GW must be more upfront and transparent about the categories of fees that show up on our eBills, and not slap students with hidden charges without notification. To alleviate what is already an often confusing and overwhelming process – particularly for students whose parents didn’t have the same college experience – the University must better advertise financial aid advisers who can help students with specific questions throughout the payment process.

My monthly bill suddenly increased by about $300 after I moved to D.C. and had already made two eBill payments. Frustratingly, neither the University nor the bill were explicit about where these charges came from. None of the categories that make up the total of my bill increased, nor were new categories added, so this extra $300 was only reflected in the total. When I discovered the discrepancy, I went to the financial aid office and talked to four different employees throughout my first semester. Each employee gave me different answers about where the extra hidden charge was coming from – leaving me even more confused. It seemed as if even the employees in the office did not know with certainty every charge that was being made to monthly bills. This $300 mystery charge remained, and my family finally just paid it. Students have every right to know how much – and why – they are being charged to go to a university as expensive as GW, where the University’s tuition has just increased again for next academic year.

This semester, the same charge happened again. My mother checked eBill and told me that she is being charged double for the semester. I visited the office again, and an employee at financial aid told me that after the cost of attendance is calculated through eBill, the University can recalculate and charge extra if necessary by adding all parts of the cost of attendance and subtracting them by the amount of financial aid each student receives.

University policy states that “the amount of financial aid is subject to adjustment at any time if there are changes in family financial circumstances or if additional financial aid information warrants such adjustments.” But the University should be stating the reasons for the new charges through efficient communication like email. Students should receive emails about alterations to their bills, as this gives clarity around how the cost of attendance charges are made with valid and specific reasons.

Aside from the hidden charges, the whole payment process tends to be hard to follow. The unclear billing is only made worse through the lack of user-friendliness of eBill. It is hard to go through the six tabs to find the information you are looking for, which harms transparency for students since they can’t find out details on what exactly they are paying.

With a price tag of more than $70,000 per year for on and off campus students, the University should be clear and offer help when it comes to paying tuition bills.

Ever since I entered the University this fall, I have remained distracted and concerned about the payment issues through eBill. I have never had a clear idea of the calculations and the categories I am required to pay, causing distraction from classes since I had to pay more than the initial calculations said. It would have been far more helpful if the University took the initiative to better inform students of financial aid information sessions and advisers that provide guidance to incoming freshmen who are not sure about college and the payments, which they never did for me. This is particularly vital for first-generation and international students, who can be especially unfamiliar with the tuition process here. Although this confusion could be alleviated by simply being more explicit about fees on my eBill and having clearer communication with students, the University did not show any effort to alleviate such matter.

Money is a sensitive issue for families and students across the University, which is why the University must revamp the payment system to make it user-friendly and more transparent on the specifics of the payments. With a price tag of more than $70,000 per year for on and off campus students, the University should be clear and offer help when it comes to paying tuition bills.

Cindy Bae, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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