Bursars play vital role at College

The question of money puts many students on edge. The complex and often harrowing world of bills, holds, balances and loans can seem impenetrable, and receiving a lengthy email about a financial issue can be extremely stressful. However, students would perhaps be less inclined to panic if they knew the people behind their bills: the bursar’s office, a team of three good-natured women who love to help students navigate the not-so-murky world of billing.

Located on the first floor of Hopkins Hall, the bursars share a spacious office with the rest of the divisions of the controller’s office, which manages all of the accounting needs of the College. Paula Langer, assistant bursar, and Jill Mendel, cashier and accounting assistant, have been helping students manage their finances at the College for 29 and 23 years, respectively, while Mary Kate Shea ’08, bursar of the College, joined the team almost eight years ago after working in the conferences office. Together, they manage all student accounts and billing, the collection of loans and all the fees and deposits students receive and make over their college career. The work is high in volume, but Shea finds the job rewarding.

“I like the interaction with students,” Shea said. “When I was in the conferences office we … had virtually no student interaction — we were this other little entity.” Now, though, she gets to work directly with students on a daily basis, helping them navigate their balances and payments. She gets particular satisfaction from being able to “help resolve a situation, offer a family an option to spread out their payments or something that makes things a little bit easier for them,” she said. While many may think of the bursar’s office as the impersonal policeman behind their tuition bills, helping students and families find solutions to financial issues is the best part of the job, according to Shea.

However, the job also can also be a tough one. “Every once and a while we’ll have a student who, as we get ready for graduation for the seniors, … has a balance that’s significant enough that they can walk at graduation and participate, but when they open up their diploma case it’s a letter from me,” Shea said. Placing holds on course registration, and in some cases even diplomas, can be one of the toughest parts of the job, but Shea stays confident and positive even in the face of uncertainty. She works tirelessly with students and their families to figure out a solution to any financial problem. In almost every situation, she said, “they chip away at it, and six months, 12 months later, the balance is paid in full, and it’s really rewarding to be able to then send the diploma.”

The ability to help students overcome obstacles is an enduring part of the job, but as time goes on many day-to-day aspects of the bursar’s office continue to evolve. Before spring 2010, all billing was done via paper bills sent by mail. When the current electronic system was introduced, it brought big changes to how the bursar’s office functioned and interacted with the student body. For one, responsibility shifted from a focus on the family, as bills were mailed to a student’s home address, to a focus on the students themselves. “Once we went to electronic billing, the account was the student’s, and they had to invite someone else to be able to see it and pay it,” she said. Under this system, bills were distributed at monthly intervals, but in fall 2014, the office adopted a new platform called the Student Account Center (SAC). “That’s a real-time billing system,” Shea said, “so if we get charges … we can put those on and students and parents can see them immediately in the system.” This instant relay of information has helped students stay on top of their balances, according to Shea, and helps to prevent unpleasant surprises.

Just because this information exists, however, does not mean all students make use of it. Many students, who are too busy or scared to address financial issues, ignore Shea’s emails. “Money is a fraught subject for a lot of students,” she said, and admitted that “there are some families in very difficult situations.” Honesty and an active cooperative spirit on the part of the students can be a huge boon in making the billing process run smoothly. “If you get something from us,” she said, “don’t panic — but also don’t ignore it.” Shea and her colleagues are always eager to help students out, and invite students with any concerns to come in and chat. “Our doors are always open.”