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What is a Bursar?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A bursar is a college or university official who is responsible for overseeing student billing and payments. He or she deals with student accounts, issuing statements to students to keep them apprised of their outstanding bills, payment histories, and other financial issues. The bursar usually supervises an office which includes a number of employees. It is usually impossible for a single person to handle all of the student accounts for an educational institution, as accounts can get quite complex.

The position of bursar, meaning “treasurer of a college,” dates to the 1500s. The word originates from the Latin bursarius, or “purse-bearer,” referencing the fact that bursars hold the purse of the institutions they work for, managing student accounts. A college also usually has a chief financial officer who oversees all financial matters for a college, including receipt of grant monies for college projects, payroll administration, and a variety of other issues.

The office of the bursar keeps close track of all of the students enrolled or currently taking leave from an educational institution. Working with the financial aid office, it determines how much money students owe for tuition, housing, dining contracts, health insurance, and associated fees. The bursar's office accepts funds from student lenders, applying those payments to the student's outstanding account and providing students with refund checks for any excess funds, and it also takes scholarship money along with direct payments from students.

An individual student account can be very complicated. Each account starts out with a varying amount payable, depending on the student's standing in the school, and the types of school services he or she is using. The amount payable is reduced by the amount of funds the bursar has received on the student's behalf, including student loan disbursements and scholarships, to generate a statement which either has a balance due or indicates that the student is owed a refund.

For students with substantial balances, the bursar may work with the student to develop a payment plan, rather than demanding a balance in full. Bursars also help students with tax issues, issuing tax forms which may be required by law and helping students access the tax credits and benefits they are entitled to. People who work in the bursar's office generally have accounting experience, coupled with a knowledge of computer systems used to keep track of student accounts, and a knowledge of issues unique to education, such as how student loans work, and which tax benefits are available to students.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon326010 — On Mar 19, 2013

Unfortunately, in many cases it looks like people hired to work at Bursar offices, are chosen precisely for being rude and condescending.

By runner101 — On Aug 29, 2011

@oceana - I must say I am very glad that your bursar's office has employed smiling happy people!

I half expected when I read this article to find that the bursar's office only hires disgruntled people! Every single bursar employee I have encountered at my college, no matter my demeanor has always been short and almost always borderline rude or mean, I can never decide which.

I just chalked it up to having to handle spending much time collecting bills, I figure that cannot be too fun for anyone.

By Oceana — On Aug 29, 2011

The people who worked in the bursar’s office at my university were always friendly. I know it’s not this way everywhere, but I think that was a job requirement there.

Much like a bank is set up, the workers each had their own window and line of customers. Lots of the students were there with questions, as billing can get confusing for young people out on their own for the first time. As far as I could tell, the workers were very patient and informative.

I don’t know if anyone ever dealt directly with the actual bursar. I think maybe he just did his job quietly in his office while the workers handled the public.

By orangey03 — On Aug 28, 2011

I got a full scholarship to my college, and I remember getting those refund checks. It was so nice to have hundreds of extra dollars to help with food and books. Since I didn’t live on campus, I didn’t have to pay for room and board, so I got a rather large chunk back.

I remember standing in line at the bursar’s office to get my check. It was always a very long line, because everyone needed to see the bursar near the beginning of the semester. The amount of money that I received was definitely worth the wait, though.

By ysmina — On Aug 27, 2011

This is the first time I heard this term in English. In my college, this office was called the Finances Office, and the Bursar was called the Finance Officer.

If I remember correctly from my High School French classes, there was a similar word, "bourse" meaning grant or scholarship. It was sometimes used for stock exchange as well.

I think "bourse" also has the same root that "bursar" has. Either it has various different meanings or has come to be used more for "funds" than "scholarships" over time.

I don't think it is that common to call a Finances Officer a Bursar in the U.S. though. It definitely isn't in the Midwest where I grew up.

By burcidi — On Aug 27, 2011

The bursar at my college was very good at her job. She was very disciplined but also very understanding and knew how to work with students.

I think this is a hard job because not only did her office have to deal with so many accounts and so much paperwork, but they also had to track down students and get in touch with them about payments.

I know that during my freshman year, I didn't know how things worked exactly and I had to deal with all my payments, scholarships and loans because my parents weren't paying for college. It was confusing and I did miss a couple of payment deadlines in the beginning.

But the bursar at my college was very kind and would get in touch with me. She listened to what was going on, gave me different options and deadline extensions so I could sort things out.

I was so impressed with her work. She really made my responsibilities and college life easier.

By Charred — On Aug 26, 2011

@hamje32 - I don’t think that bursar jobs are that bad. Yes, there is stress, but there would be stress with any job where you are managing accounts for different customers.

I think that in this position, from my experience in working with the bursar, you need excellent communication skills and the ability to work effectively with a variety of departments.

I would also guess that you would need an accounting degree although I am not a hundred percent sure about that; it would certainly be a plus. You would also need to be very proficient with computer software, especially the financial aid software used by colleges.

Computer software alone can handle the massive complexity involved in student tuition accounts, when you factor in the different sources of payments that are available.

By hamje32 — On Aug 26, 2011

@David09 - To be honest, I feel sorry for the university bursar – and by extension, the entire bursar office.

With the high price of college tuition these days and so many people struggling financially, I would not want to be in the position of managing student accounts.

Of course I am sure that the financial aid office would be under similar stress, probably hearing constant sob stories from students about how they’re not getting enough money and need so much more.

But it’s the bursar that gives you the bill. I have a word of advice to your daughter and especially all freshmen students; be nice to the bursar – they can make your life easy or make it hard. Easy is better.

By David09 — On Aug 25, 2011

This is my daughter’s first year in college, and it has been quite an experience so far. We’ve had to deal with scholarship money, financial aid money, payment plans for expected family contributions as well as the money needed for books and other things.

It’s dizzying on one level, but on another level, it’s easier than when I went to college. It’s not that it’s different; I had to deal with the same things, but nowadays the students have an online bursar account and a unique ID assigned to them.

My daughter is able to log in and check her balances and also make payments online if she so chooses. It certainly doesn’t take the sting out of how much money she will owe in loans and stuff like that, but it makes it easy to manage by putting it all in one place.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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