OU Blazes Trail with Tuition Gift Card (July 2013)
By Bill Grabarek, Senior Editor
True to the pioneering spirit of the University of Oklahoma’s moniker, the Sooners (a nickname for settlers during the land rush of the late 1800s), OU is traversing a path seemingly untrodden by other colleges and universities.
OU’s Office of the Bursar recently launched the OU Gift Card, enabling friends and relatives to give students gift cards in denominations of $25, $40, $50, $100, $250 and $500 that can be used to help pay for tuition. The card’s only fee is for shipping and handling if it’s ordered through the university’s Website. Cards also can be purchased in the bursar’s office.
Brad Burnett, associate vice president for enrollment and student financial services, says the OU Gift Card was created to help students pay for their education by expanding the traditional mechanisms by which they finance their tuition, such as personal savings, financial aid or parents bearing the primary burden.
“We wanted to enable people who aren’t necessarily going to completely fund a student’s education but would be interested in helping pay down his or her cost of education, like extended family or friends,” Burnett tells Paybefore.
Dare to be Different
This isn’t the first time prepaid has hit the college scene. But the most popular type of card thus far has been the campus card—like the Paybefore Award-winning BlackboardPay—which serves as a combination ID card and prepaid debit card that provides students with access to funds, including financial aid disbursements. The OU gift card can only be used for tuition and other bursar-approved expenses, including library and parking fees.
Burnett says the school looked to other colleges for guidance but couldn’t find one offering a similar program. “This is the first one that I am aware of that’s used to pay down bursar charges,” he says.
As a result, OU is feeling its way through the fledgling program, which is run entirely in-house. The plastic gift cards are numbered and logged in a database. The second phase of the program entails adding a magnetic stripe to the card to enable reloading, he notes.
The card’s April launch was uneventful to say the least. “When the Website first went live, we sold two cards in the first 15 minutes and we thought this was going to be huge,” Burnett says. “Then, two weeks went by and we didn’t sell another.”
The school is preparing for a big back-to-school marketing push in early August. “By being first, it’s going to take a while for people to wrap their minds around the fact that [the gift card] is even available,” Burnett says. “I don’t think the first thing on somebody’s mind when a child goes off to college is to buy them a gift card to help them with tuition and fees, but I think over time the novelty of it will catch on.”
More to Explore
Analysts agree that a university offering gift cards for tuition is a rare, if not completely unique, concept that offers benefits to academia and opportunities for the prepaid industry.
“For decades, universities have enabled students to use their ID cards as closed-loop payment cards so purchases made on campus would be added to their university bills, which is one step below a gift card program,” says Aleia Van Dyke, analyst at Javelin Strategy & Research.
She tells Paybefore that gift cards for tuition is a great idea, provided universities have the best interest of the students at heart, “which means providing cards with low fees. Any fees that are seen as excessive or abusive will surely face the wrath of students and regulators, alike.”
“The industry is always looking for new opportunities to expand services, and is full of great innovators that can service the school’s current plans but also push its program to the next level.”
Matt Davies, CEO and director of Powerhouse Brands Consulting and the Gift Card Network, says the OU Gift Card is a great way for students to raise funds for their education. He recommends that the university extend the card’s use to other student expenses, including meals, supplies and school activities.
Once OU gets a better survey of the prepaid card territory, Davies and Van Dyke offer suggestions for expanding the product, such as a GPR prepaid card linked to a bank account and financial aid funds.
“[Prepaid cards] are especially helpful for college students who are just beginning to learn how to manage their finances on their own,” Van Dyke says.
Davies suspects many in the prepaid industry will be more than willing to help OU further develop its gift card program. “The industry is always looking for new opportunities to expand services, and is full of great innovators that can service the school’s current plans, but also push its program to the next level.”