Winter Quarter invoices don’t quite fit the bill

Sasha Talcott

When Weinberg freshman Amy Thorn opened her Northwestern tuition bill in December, she received a costly shock — a charge of $3,000 more than she paid Fall Quarter.

“I was surprised,” said Thorn, who will receive about $21,000 this year in financial aid. “I just don’t have that money saved up to pay for this term.”

Fortunately, Thorn won’t have to pay. She was one of thousands of students who received December tuition bills that did not take federal student loans into account, making the invoices appear as if students owed far more than they actually did.

Speech freshman Matt Driscoll said he thought nothing of his tuition bill when he first opened it, but that his father immediately knew something was wrong. Though Driscoll receives a $1,000 scholarship, there was no mention of it on the invoice.

“Dad just told me to call,” Driscoll said. “He was paying $1,000 more than he should have been. Something got fouled up.”

Rebecca Dixon, associate provost for university enrollment, said the problem stemmed from combining the Student Enterprise System with NU’s outdated billing printers.

SES integrates course registration, billing, financial aid and other administrative tasks into one software program. But since NU gradually began to use the software in more offices, the system has been plagued by computer glitches and other problems, Dixon said.

“It’s like repairing a 747 while you’re in flight,” Dixon said. “There’s no way this plane is going to crash, but we’ve had some near hits.”

For Winter Quarter billing, the error started when a university worker entered a wrong date, causing SES not to calculate federal loan money, Dixon said. The university’s Office of Student Accounts sent out thousands of incorrect bills, even though the system itself had stored students’ information correctly.

When he discovered the problem, Student Accounts Director Bradley Stene sent an e-mail to students explaining the problem and how to fix it. He told students to subtract their expected financial aid from the invoice before paying the university.

“All of us involved with financial aid and invoicing are very sorry for the confusion,” Stene wrote. “Providing the Northwestern community with accurate financial information is very important to us.”

Dixon said more than 100 universities across the country use the software, which was created by PeopleSoft Inc. Though other schools have faced similar computer problems, she said, NU’s special computer requirements make it even more complicated to implement.

Last year representatives from the Big Ten schools met with company representatives and “leaned on them” to improve the software’s quality, Dixon said. Though the company had taken steps before the meeting to improve the situation, she said, the financial aid section of the program was not fully developed.

“They sent out software that did not have quality control in it,” Dixon said. “We just got together with them and said, ‘We’re too big, powerful and important for you not to pay attention to us.'”

Despite the problems, she said, NU will benefit from the program in the long run. Dixon said that by September she hopes to fully integrate the program, enabling students to access their account information online.