Ruth Harpool, managing director of treasury operations at Indiana University, doesn’t consider herself a techy. She learned about firewalls, routers, and ports out of necessity. However, she does proudly call herself a “payment geek.”
“What fascinates me most about payments is that each method has its own inherent risk,” says Ruth. “Credit cards can be hacked, but the money can be replaced. Cash is easy to move, but untraceable if stolen. Cryptocurrency has a finality to it — when you send money, your information better be right because there’s no way to get that money back. Whether face-to-face, electronic, or in a mailbox — there’s always risk.”
While Ruth’s spent many years in banking, the last 17 years have been in higher education tackling the many unique challenges to collecting payments. While the athletics department and dining services both accept credit cards, one needs a physical register and the other needs the ability to be mobile — accepting payments from anywhere without the tether of a cash register or IP line.
Helping departments understand what they need and then delivering secure, easy and inexpensive options are what the university’s treasury operations team does.
When asked about the payment trends affecting higher education in the future, Ruth offered three predictions:
Imagine a student applying to 10 different higher education institutions. Each college asks for very personal information: ACT/SAT scores, social security numbers, and a cumulative GPA. Today, when the student chooses which school to attend, their data is still accessible by the nine other universities. But in the future, imagine that the application is part of a blockchain — a distributed online ledger — and the student grants a “key” to each institution to read (but not copy) that information. Once the student is enrolled at their preferred institution, they can deactivate the keys to the nine other colleges — revoking access to personal information. This also frees up the institution from storing and protecting information from students who are not attending.
Entrepreneurial higher education
Public universities get their funding from tuition, state appropriations, and contract and grant money. There’s pressure to keep tuition low, while state governments are reducing higher education appropriations and more institutions are competing over the same contract and grant money. How can institutions make up the monetary difference? Universities will be looking for opportunities to help subsidize their income without jeopardizing their non-profit status. Can the university host a conference? Can a department sell a journal? Are there ways to save on everyday expenses?
Creative universities are looking for incremental ways to financially support their mission, reduce their costs, all while retaining the best and brightest faculty and staff.
Today’s students grew up with a mobile device. They send money to friends electronically via apps like Venmo, Paypal, or Zelle. For students, writing a check is atypical, while waving their phone to make a payment seems natural. Universities have to expand the ways in which they accept payments. It will take time and resources to do it correctly, since doing it wrong can lead to data breaches, reconciliation issues, and customer frustration. And while it should be easy to accept numerous payment tenders, it doesn’t mean the university needs to accept all tenders.
In addition, universities have realized they need to deliver quick and secure payment solutions to a multitude of departments selling a variety of products and services.
“That’s one of the reasons why we like Nelnet Campus Commerce so much. It’s so easy to deliver to our different departments and their various needs,” says Ruth. “Also, they hire higher education people, so they understand our world, our challenges, how campus politics work and how priorities can get temporarily bumped. That understanding changes how someone approaches their clients.”
“At this point, I don’t want to work with vendors,” says Ruth. “I prefer to work with partners. It’s a two-way street and we grow and learn together.”
Ruth Harpool is a member of AFP, EPCOR, and serves on the Payments Institute Board of Regents, the EPCOR Cash Management Committee, the NACHA Rules and Operations Committee. She is also the co-chair of the Treasury Institute for Higher Education annual PCI Workshop where she hosted a speaking session in 2019 with Ben Focht, manager of Nelnet Inc.’s cybersecurity team, entitled, “Cyber Criminals, Compliance, and Payment Security in Higher Ed.”