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

Tuition payment programs are short-term installment plans that allow you to stretch your payments over a 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 Bright Horizons College Coach, which provides 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.

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Most plans are interest-free but charge an enrollment fee that's typically about $50 to $100. “That’s a lot less than you’d pay in interest on a loan,” says Jane Klemmer, president of Klemmer Educational Counseling.

The most common plan spreads payments out in monthly installments. Some 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.

Temple University has an interest-free plan that allows you to pay up to 10 monthly installments for the academic year (five payments for fall and five for spring) starting a few months before the fall semester. With New York University's deferred payment plan for undergraduates, you pay 50 percent of the bill in early August, another 25 percent in early October, and the final 25 percent in early November. 

At the University of Michigan, you can make five monthly payments (June through October) for the fall semester and for the winter semester (November through March). And at the University of Connecticut, you can make four monthly payments starting in July; spring semester payment plans start in December. There's no interest but there's a $100 enrollment fee.

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

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

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