Charging a tuition payment is a strategy some cardholders use to build up points or miles quickly. But many colleges and universities will tack on a “convenience fee” for such charges. Independent of the interest charge, the average convenience fee charged by schools is 2.62 percent, according to a new report by CreditCards.com.
The majority, or 87 percent, of the 300 colleges and universities surveyed by CreditCards.com accept credit cards under some circumstances. But most place restrictions on when cards can be used. Most commonly, schools only accept credit cards for payments made online. Others make the option available only to graduate students or ask students to go through a third-party vendor, according to the report.
Some schools charge convenience fees as a way to cover the processing fees they would owe to the credit card companies, says Matt Schulz, an analyst for CreditCards.com. Retailers, which also have to pay those processing fees, are usually able to incorporate those costs into the price of their products because credit card use is widespread, he says. But schools where a minority of students use plastic might not want to spread those costs to the rest of the student body.
The prevalence of convenience fees varied based on the type of school. For instance, of the 100 largest community colleges surveyed, all accepted credit cards but only 12 percent charged a convenience fee. That may be because tuition costs are lower at community colleges than at private universities, which may make it more common for students to pay with credit cards, Schulz says.
“The more these community colleges can eliminate barrier to payment, the more students they can attract,” Schulz says, adding that those schools with widespread credit card use may be able spread out those processing fees by including it in the cost of tuition.
In contrast, 90 percent of the public colleges and 69 percent of private universities that accept credit cards charge a convenience fee. With tuition bills being larger at those schools, it’s likely that credit card use is less common than it would be at a community college, Shulz adds. That means those schools may be less likely to spread those costs out among all students.
Three schools tied for charging the highest convenience fee of at 2.99 percent. The most common convenience fee, 2.75 percent, was charged by 77 of the schools. Nine schools charged a flat fee instead of a percentage.
So is it ever smart to use plastic to cover tuition costs? Only in rare cases. For instance, putting a tuition bill on a credit card can be an easy way to rack up reward points for families who were planning to write a check — but only if there is no convenience fee, says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com. The bills would also have to be paid in full immediately to avoid high interest charges.
It might also make sense for a student with a relatively minor tuition bill to use a credit card with a low interest rate if there is no convenience fee, Schulz says.
Most students, however, would be better off with a federal student loan, McBride says. Most college bills are large enough that students may struggle to pay them off before interest charges apply, he says. Federal loans tend to have lower interest rates, income-based repayment plans and loan forgiveness for people who take public sector or nonprofit jobs.
Private loans come with less flexibility than federal loans when it comes to payment options, but some students may still benefit from longer repayment terms than they would get with a credit card.
“Even if you have a rock-bottom interest rate on a credit card,” he says, “I still don’t think that’s a viable way to go because of the benefits you’ll be giving up.”