Feature Spotlight: Payment processing

One of our favorite value-adds in Populi is online payment processing. Schools can link a merchant account or payment gateway account with Populi and start taking online payments for tuition, fees, and Bookstore purchases. Populi Billing already eases the processes connected to charging students, recording their payments, and settling their account balances. Credit card processing takes it even further: it lets your school use Populi to collect actual payments, helping your students pay their bills on time and helping you get money in the door.

Setup

Populi directly integrates with Chase Paymentech* merchant accounts, which include everything you need to process credit card payments and channel the funds to your back account. It also works with Authorize.net payment gateway accounts, which serve as a bridge between Populi and your existing merchant account.

To get set up with Populi credit card processing, we put you in touch with Chase Paymentech or send you over to Authorize.net. After completing the application process with your choice of provider, we plug your credentials into Populi. On your end, you configure a few settings to make sure credit card payments hit your General Ledger the way you want them to. Then you're good to go!

Howzitwork?

There's nothing to it. Just invoice your students as normal. When a student logs in, he'll see an alert on his Populi Home page.

Clicking the alert takes him to the Pay Now page. He can pay there, or send a link to the page to someone who wants to pay on his behalf.

You can also go to his Profile's financial dashboard and enter payment information yourself (as well as send a Pay Now link to someone else).

With Bookstore purchases, it comes up as a payment option. If you've set your Bookstore to public, anyone can come shop and place orders with you—and then pay by credit card.

Fees

As you probably know, credit card processing ain't free. Your payment processor takes a percentage of every credit card payment you accept. But Populi doesn't take any sort of cut whatsoever—we simply provide this functionality, free of charge, as part of our service to you.

Benefits

As of this writing, Populi has processed over $15 million worth of credit card payments on behalf of our client schools. Reducing the obstacles for students and parents to pay their tuition and fees is a great way to benefit your bottom line, and we're happy to make that easier on our customers.

* Interested in a Chase Paymentech account? Contact Populi Support and we'll get you started.

Release trickle: January 2013 edition

Happy third day of 2013, everybody! Here's a quick update on what we've released over the past few months:

1098-T updates

Just minutes ago, we updated how Populi handles IRS 1098-T forms. Previously, we generated them only for students who met the exact IRS qualifications; we also had a muddle of export options. Here's what we changed:

  • We now generate 1098-T forms for all students enrolled in a given calendar year—by default
  • We give you the option to disable 1098-Ts for individual students on their profile
  • We broke out Release to students from the basic export options
  • Export options have changed: the PDF (IRS, College, and Student Copies) and e-File exports now only include forms that have been released to students; the XLS export includes all students shown on the 1098-T report
  • To make e-Filing easier, Populi can now remember your TCC, EIN, and Financial Aid phone number (via Financial Aid > Settings)

These updates should make 1098-T reporting even less of a miserable quasi-governmental-body-induced headache.

Other stuff

Everyone now has the By Term tab on their Profile's Financial tab—among other things, you can now add room and meal plans to anyone (great for those folks who spend the summer in your dorms).

We added student age to the IPEDS completions report.

For our ABHE customers, there are a few new preset report items for the ABHE annual report.

You can now find students with $0 balances in Billing > Current > Student Balances.

Course assignment descriptions now let you include live URLs. Link away!

A few new custom transcript variables let you show earned units that count towards the student's GPA.

Aaaaand, some back-end speed optimizations on course evaluation reporting.

Soon to come: we're closing some loopholes regarding grade locks for students who haven't yet completed their course evaluations.

Selling

Selling is what selling sells/The lonely saints of the seven avenues/Could sell the seven hells!
—The Clash, "Car Jamming"

“The key to economic prosperity is the organized creation of dissatisfaction… If everyone were satisfied no one would want to buy the new thing.”

Thus wrote Charles Kettering, inventor and ersatz philosopher, in 1929. Kettering spent a goodly chunk of his professional life in the employ of General Motors as head of research; his work spanned a number of disciplines, including marketing. To American businesses, it was a potent, irresistible thought: if people are satisfied, they won't buy our things... so we'll just make them dissatisfied with what they have. This thought molted into consumer-focused advertising, now so familiar to us that we don't notice how pervasive and intrusive and habit-shaping it is. Some words from William Cavanaugh really get at it:

In fact, most contemporary marketing is based not on providing information but on associating products with evocative images and themes not directly related to the product itself. Non-commodifiable goods such as self-esteem, love, sex, friendship, and success are associated with products that bear little or no relation to these goods. The desire for these goods is intensified by calling into question the acceptability of the consumer, what General Motors’ research division—in a reference to changing car models each year—once called "the organized creation of dissatisfaction."

Products are sold to solve problems; Kettering's genius was to locate the problem in the person, rather than in the material situation. If the problem is that you don't have a car, any car (or even a city bus pass) will take care of you. But if the problem is your self image, your independence, your virility... well, this year's model has a bigger, throatier, more emotionally-fulfilling engine than that old thing you're driving, fella. This psychology bruntly manifests itself in the housewife hectored by her sister-in-law because of spots on her dishes; it is more subtly and appealingly deployed by Apple, the single most effective creator of dissatisfaction ever.

This is simply the way marketing is done now: aim the pitch not at the need but rather at that psychological pressure point, that emotional vulnerability, that underlying hunger that motivates all other actions. It's used on individual consumers, and it's also used on institutions. Higher education institutions have particular desires, insecurities, and goals that motivate them, and software is nowadays pitched as the panacea to nearly every problem—including these deeper issues.

As evidence, we proffer marketing quotes from a variety of education software companies. Read them, and ask yourself what they're really selling:

Prestige and hipness
Relevance and community
Institutional identity and uniqueness

All of these products solve certain problems for schools and educators—they track data, keep records, pull reports, handle grading, email donors, and so on. But look at where the copy actually tries to make contact with you. All of these quotes leap from saying some form of "this product does that" to "we'll make your school everything you wish it could be". "We build software that lets you... be a leader... change learning... be complex and unique... be the answer to all your students' questions..." and so on.

And just like what's promised you by that emotionally-fulfilling muscle car engine, those results are something a software program simply cannot deliver.

Populi is a tech company that serves higher education and solves particular problems for small colleges. But one of our fundamental beliefs is that technology cannot even begin to replace institutional vision, competent and committed faculty and staff, and most of all, meaningful communication with students. World-changing leadership, depth of community, institutional pride, and whatever else is implicitly promised in the above copy—these things take decades to develop, decades during which one year's Latest Technology will inevitably fossilize into next year's antiquated dinosaur.

Hopefully, then, our own marketing copy holds up to that belief. We try to stick to this basic story: Populi exists, it does these things, you get it for this much, so wanna try it out? In a lot of places, we have to strike a balance between describing the functions it performs and the more intangible elements—ease of use, visual design, and so on—that invite bloviated copywriting. Here and there we promise things like, "a more usable and accessible dataset that will do more for your college": we should perhaps soften that to, "...that can do more for your school...".

Our yardstick for our own writing: if there's anywhere in our copy redolent of Charles Kettering, we want it gone.

Populi handles critical operations for a school, and our customers depend on us to make sure a lot of essential things happen. In view of that relationship, we simply can't afford to over-promise regarding what we do. Matters of prestige, community, relevance, identity—software can help, but it can't make it happen. If you don't like where your school is at, Populi might help with your change of course. But it isn't that change of course itself.

IE8 going the way of the dodo on January 1, 2013

We're dropping support for Internet Explorer 8—as of January 1, 2013, Populi will no longer support that very troublesome, outdated browser.

We cut IE7 loose a few months ago (after its share of Populi logins fell below 3%), together with old versions of other browsers like Firefox 3 and Safari 3. IE8's share is currently below 5% and is falling; more people access Populi via Safari on iPad than IE8.

The takeaway: it's time for IE8 users to update your browser! New browser versions are simple to get, more secure, and incorporate improvements in speed, reliability, and compatibility with web standards. Another benefit: it helps us focus on moving Populi forward. Few things grate on us more than hacking our code to deal with some sociopathic element in IE8—especially when we could spend that time building new features or improving current ones.

So, hotfoot on over to one of these links and get updated!

Firefox

Safari

Chrome

And if you really need to run some version of IE, see what version Microsoft will let you download in your version of Windows.

Moodle and Populi

Lots of our schools use Moodle alongside Populi. Moodle is a free, open-source LMS that schools can use (together with some investments in IT personnel and equipment) to run online courses, and it has some purchase among the kind of smaller schools Populi is built to serve. Even though Moodle competes with Populi, we also know that it's not necessarily a simple matter for a school to drop its investment (especially that of faculty hours) in Moodle.

So, with our latest release, we added a couple new things to courses that will let your faculty use Moodle alongside Populi with greater ease: a Common Cartridge importer and LTI links. We've posted a brief tutorial that walks you through how to use both on the Populi Knowledge Base.