Your guide to paying college tuition with a credit card
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Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with the latest information.
The traditional college experience may look very different this fall due to the pandemic, but it still will cost a pretty penny. Higher education costs have been steadily increasing over the last two decades, making tuition a sizeable expense for many families.
While many colleges and universities accept credit cards for these payments, it isn’t always free to do so. If you’re responsible for tuition payment, should you pull out your trusted travel rewards credit card or opt for paying with a check or withdrawal from your bank account? In this post, we’ll help you answer that very question.
Related reading: How to maximize points on first-year college essentials
How to find out if a college accepts credit cards
Before getting into when it makes sense (and when it doesn’t make sense) to swipe your card for your kid’s tuition payment, it’s important for you to first do your research. Is this even an option? If so, are there fees associated with it? A quick call to the finance office or registrar should do the trick, though many will post details of their payment options online as well.
If you type “(Insert college name here) tuition credit card” into your favorite search engine, you’ll likely see the applicable page in the first few results.
Colleges fall into these categories
Generally speaking, the college or university in question will fall into one of three categories:
- Tuition can’t be paid with a credit card (like my undergraduate alma mater, Wake Forest University)
- Tuition can be paid with a credit card with no additional fee (like the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, from which I obtained my M.Ed.)
- Tuition can be paid with a credit card with an additional fee (like the 2.6% fee charges by the University of Florida, where I earned my M.B.A.)
The first two options are a no-brainer. If you can’t use a card at all, you’re out of luck. Several institutions impose these restrictions. In fact, take a look at the applicable FAQ from the Cashier’s Office at the University of California – Santa Cruz:
Universities that don’t charge card processing fees
On the other hand, if you can pay your tuition with a credit card and won’t incur a fee, then you absolutely should do it — and be grateful that you can!
Just be sure that you are able to pay off the entire amount when your statement comes due, which is my number one commandment for travel rewards credit cards. If you can’t and must carry a balance, any interest and finance charges will easily cancel out the points or miles you’d earn on the purchase.
Unfortunately, the number of schools that fall into this second category is relatively small. In fact, I went through U.S. News & World Reports’ list of the top 100 national universities in the country and found just five that allow no-fee credit card payments for tuition:
- University of Southern California
- State University of New York (SUNY) – Binghamton
- SUNY – Stony Brook
- SUNY – College of Environmental Science and Forestry
- SUNY – Buffalo
(Note: It appears that most if not all state universities in New York don’t charge fees for paying with a card, so if you’re looking at or already attend one these schools, you’re in luck!)
There are other exceptions I found for certain classes of students. For example, part-time students at Boston University can pay via credit card with no fee, as can most graduate students at Northeastern and Lehigh.
The strangest policy I came across comes from the University of California-Davis, where MBA students can pay a $12 flat fee to use a (wait for it) Discover card. As noted above, make sure to do your research to see if you’re eligible for these low fee or no fee credit card payments.
Paying a fee for using a credit card
Where things get more complicated is the third category. Of the top national universities, 65 allow payments with fees that range from 2% (Penn State University, Brigham Young University and the University of Maryland) to 2.99% (Brandeis University). Should you incur a fee to pay college tuition with a credit card? As is the case with much of what we cover here at The Points Guy, the answer isn’t absolute: “Yes, but only in certain circumstances.”
Let’s take a look at where it would make sense.
It makes sense to earn a sign-up bonus
The first scenario under which you should consider paying tuition with a credit card involves credit card welcome bonuses. Many top travel rewards credit cards offer large amounts of points or miles for reaching a certain level of spending in a given timeframe.
In some cases, your normal everyday spending may not be enough to get you there. If the only possible way of meeting the required minimum spending threshold to earn a bonus is to incur a fee on tuition payments, it could make sense to do so.
Doing the math with an example
For example, let’s say that you were interested in the British Airways Visa Signature Card and its enhanced bonus of up to 100,000 Avios. You’d earn 100,000 bonus Avios after you spend $5,000 on purchases in within the first three months of account opening (easy enough). You can then earn an additional 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 on purchases within your first year of account opening (a bit harder).
Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, each batch of 50,000 Avios is worth $750. While you can easily spend enough organically to earn the first 50,000 Avios, the only way you could get the remaining 50,000 may be by charging tuition to the card.
If the tuition payment in question is $20,000 and your university charges a 2.6% fee, this would tack on $520. However, in doing so, you’d earn an additional 50,000 bonus Avios plus 20,520 Avios for the purchase itself (at the standard earning rate of 1 Avios per dollar spent). These 70,520 Avios are worth $1,057.80, more than covering the fee charged by the university.
Related reading: Here’s why you should care about British Airways Avios
Once again, this logic only applies if you have no other way to spend the required amount to earn the sign-up bonus. If you can reach that threshold in other (fee-free) ways, you’re much better off doing that and using a different method to pay the tuition that won’t incur a fee.
Related reading: Current best credit card offers
It makes sense to earn a Southwest Companion Pass
This won’t actually apply to the fall semester but would be a terrific option as you prepare to pay your tuition for next spring (and for future travel), and it involves one of the most valuable perks in the frequent flyer world: the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass.
In July 2018, Southwest added a new credit card to its line of co-branded products with Chase: The Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card. The card offers up to 80,000 points. Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Earn an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first 9 months. This bonus as well as any points you earn through regular spending on the card count towards Companion Pass qualification. So a hefty tuition payment could get you almost all of the way there.
However, this gets even better if you time things right. Since the Companion Pass is valid for the rest of the year in which is was earned and the entire following year, you should always try to earn the 125,000 qualifying points as early as possible in a calendar year.
To illustrate this, let’s say you have two children with $22,000 tuition payments each semester that can be paid with a credit card but are subject to a 2.6% fee. This amounts to a total spend of $45,144. If you charge these tuition payments to your credit card during two semesters, you’d take home the following:
- 90,288 Rapid Rewards points from the purchases
- 40,000 Rapid Rewards points from spending $1,000 in the first 3 months
Your total haul is thus 130,288 points. If you time it perfectly and all of these earnings post to your Rapid Rewards account in January, you’ll be able to enjoy the Companion Pass for almost two years. Would you pay $2,288 for points worth $1,954.32 a Companion Pass valid for roughly 23 months? I know I would!
Also, because of the pandemic this year, all Rapid Rewards accounts are getting a boost of 25,000 Companion Pass Qualifying Points (CPQPs) and 25 one-way flight segments. That means you would need to earn only 100,000 CPQPs or 75 flights on your own.
Related Reading: A guide to airline credit card companion passes
It makes sense to earn more valuable points
Another time you should consider swiping a card for tuition is when the points or miles you’d earn are more valuable than the fees you’ll incur. This is a very gray area, since everyone has their own way of valuing the various loyalty currencies out there.
A good place to start is our monthly valuations to at least get a ballpark of how much you can get out of your points and miles. However, keep in mind that these valuations typically apply to redeeming points for maximum value, especially when it comes to transferable point currencies, so the math may not make sense if you redeem your points directly.
Here are a couple of examples of when the points or miles you’d earn would outweigh the additional fee:
- Chase Freedom Unlimited: This card offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases, but if you also hold a “premium” card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can convert those cash-back earning into full Ultimate Rewards points. This is (thus) equivalent to earning 1.5 points per dollar spent on every purchase. Since we peg Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents apiece, you’re essentially getting a return of 3%. If the fee for using a credit card for tuition is less than this amount, you’ll come out ahead by using your Chase Freedom Unlimited.
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express: This may seem strange on the surface, since the Amex Business Platinum only offers 1 Membership Rewards point per dollar spent. However, it also gives you 50% more points on purchases of $5,000 or more (up to 1 million additional points per calendar year), so if your tuition payment is above this amount, you’ll earn 1.5 points per dollar spent. We peg Membership Rewards points at 2 cents apiece, so you’d get a return of 3%. Again, if the fee for using a card is less than this, go ahead and swipe the card. Terms apply.
As always, be sure to adjust these numbers based on your own valuations and evaluate your school’s credit card payment policy to determine whether it makes sense to incur the fee.
It makes sense to use an intro APR offer
The final time it makes sense to incur a fee on a credit card for tuition is decidedly less glamorous but nevertheless important.
With the price of higher education so high, many parents aren’t able to cover a full semester’s tuition with cash in the bank or the money in a college fund. As a result, financial aid packages have become ubiquitous, with roughly 85% of first-time, degree-seeking undergraduates at four-year institutions receiving some form of aid in the 2016-2017 school year. However, student loans often come with high interest rates, with federal rates rising to 5.05% for the 2018-2019 school year.
This is where a new credit card with an introductory 0% APR offer can come into play. These cards will generally allow you an initial “grace period” in which to pay off your purchases with no interest before they become subject to standard rates.
This can be a great option if you’ve exhausted the funds in a 529 college savings plan, don’t want your kids to be saddled with student debt and are able to finish paying off the entire balance before the promotional period ends. Bear in mind that these purchases are still eligible to earn points or miles too.
Once again, let me reiterate that you must be able to pay off the full balance before the promotional period ends. Otherwise, you’ll be subject to an APR that is much higher than the rate you’d get on just about any loan.
Whether you’re just getting started or are a grizzled points and miles veteran, you’re hopefully looking for any way to maximize your daily spending through travel rewards credit cards.
Around this time of year, these efforts inevitably shift towards college tuition payments, though individual institutions may charge you for the privilege of swiping your favorite brand of plastic (or may prevent you from doing so entirely!). If you’ll incur a fee for using a card, there may be instances where it makes sense, and I hope this post has helped illustrate exactly when that’s the case.
Additional reporting by Chris Dong
Featured photo by Getty Images
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