College tuition bills are coming due. If you’re worried about how you’ll pay it, your school probably has an alternative: a payment plan.

Tuition payment programs are short-term installment plans that allow you to stretch your payments out over the semester or a calendar year. Almost every school offers one and just about everyone qualifies to use such a plan.

“When you get a bill for $20,000, being able to make payments over the course of the year makes things a lot more manageable,” says Shannon Vasconcelos, director of college finance for College Coach, which provides college admissions counseling.

For some families, making smaller payments over time enables them to pay out of their monthly income rather than take out loans, says Vasconcelos, a former financial aid officer at Boston University and Tufts University.

How Tuition Payment Plans Work

Most plans are interest-free but charge an enrollment fee that is typically about $50. “That’s a lot less than you’d pay in interest on a loan,” says Jane Klemmer, president of Klemmer Educational Counseling, an independent college consultant.

The most common payment plan program spreads payments in monthly installments. Other colleges have deferred payment plans in which you make three or four equal payments during the semester.

Ideally, you should enroll in a payment plan a few months before the semester starts—but the exact timing depends on your school. At New York University, for example, you can enroll by the end of August and have your first semester payments spread out over three months—September through November. But they'll be larger than if you had signed up by mid-June and made monthly payments through the summer as well.

August and September may be a good time to think about how you'll handle the tuition bill for the spring semester, depending on your school.

If your school doesn’t offer a payment plan directly, you may be able to set up one through a third party, such as Higher One or Tuition Management Systems.

Some schools allow you to pay by credit card but charge a steeper fee if you do. You can also have payment automatically deducted from your bank account.