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Getting Carded

Best practices for campus card administration
University Business, Jan 2012
Students paying with a campus card
At many institutions, campus cards can be used for purchases at nearby businesses that have partnered with the school.

Campus cards have come a long way since their initial uses related to door access and meal plan tracking. Increasingly, colleges and universities are turning campus cards into function-packed systems, with subsequent benefits related to efficiency, revenue generation, and off-campus partnerships. Here are 10 best practices for getting the most out of your campus card program.

1. Broaden your perspective about campus cards.

Many college and university CFOs and administrators might be aware of a campus card system’s offerings, but not of its potential, believes Lowell Adkins, executive director of the National Association of Campus Card Users (NACCU). “Often, the opportunities to enhance revenue are below their radar. A campus card program is really an enterprise system, so it should be enterprise-wide.”

Card programs can be used to manage payments for anything on campus, such as food-service programs and bookstores, as well as cultural events, class fees, and residence access. The cards can  also be utilized in partnership with off-campus stores, restaurants, and service providers. For faculty, the cards can be used for payroll and faculty lounge purchases.

Taking a look at all the opportunities for card use can yield creative ideas that increase efficiency and reduce operating costs, says Fred Emery, vice president and general manager of Heartland Campus Solutions. He notes that cards can be used for financial aid disbursement, work-study payroll, and even for paying some department bills so that the use of checks is reduced. “The more the card is used, the more revenue is generated,” he points out.

“Campus cards become part of a school’s brand,” Adkins adds. “By association, creating a better card system evokes fond memories of the school.”

2. Identify your “pain points.”

To begin developing more robust campus card administration, start with identifying areas on campus that are most challenging, advises Ellen Last, OneDisburse product market manager at Higher One. Tackling those “painful” admin issues can help to mitigate the cost of more campus card functionality right away.

“Examples of problem areas could be those processes that involve multiple resources, are heavily paper-reliant, or are inherently expensive to maintain,” says Last. “You can then require vendors to incorporate any of these functionalities into a card system and quantifiable efficiencies should result.”

Payroll, in particular, can benefit from being tied to a campus card program, since payment through the card system can reduce administrative processes, she adds.

3. Create a long-term relationship with your card program vendor.

“Choose a partner that allows you to grow together,” says Last. “That is, they allow you, without pressure, to start where you feel comfortable and grow into a fuller feature set, and they’ll be prepared to be scalable to your needs as your institution grows.”

‘Grow the off-campus program at a realistic rate, and once that gets off the ground, you’ll have merchants coming to you instead of the other way around.’
—Fred Emery, Heartland Campus Solutions

According to Last, vendors should know all the functionalities that are required in terms of IT, and if some type of technology consolidation can be achieved, the vendor rep should be prepared to chime in on that strategy.

4. Develop a multifaceted communication plan.

At Wittenberg University (Ohio), students and faculty learn about campus card benefits through email blasts, social media updates, posters, table tents in the cafeteria, and postcards in student mailboxes. The messages communicate different benefits of the program—such as quick access to student refund money—and are sent through so many methods because the school has found that variety works.

“Students have very hectic schedules, so they might not respond to just a postcard or seeing a poster,” says Doug Schantz, director of student accounts at Wittenberg and founder of, a site focused on paying for college. “But since we use every medium available, our message gets across.”

Another key part of the communication plan involves parents, who are offered a session about card use during orientation. Schantz notes that many parents want to know what their children will be using at school, and creating communication materials just for them works well to reduce questions later. “We have a number of parents who are very involved in their child’s education, and want to know everything about how the cards work. By providing tutorials, we give them a level of comfort with the program.”

5. Give card users a voice in the program expansion.

Many times, off-campus partnerships are sparked by suggestions from students or faculty who ask the card office to consider including certain restaurants or retailers in the program. But the involvement of card users doesn’t have to be limited to occasional feedback; developing a collaborative environment can be beneficial when considering where the program will expand next.

“We want everybody on the same page so we can make sure we’re meeting their needs,” Schantz says. At Wittenberg, multiple departments are involved, including the development office, along with representatives from student government and other student groups, to regularly find out how the program can be utilized more frequently.

Heartland’s Emery adds that he’s seen schools such as Emory University (Ga.) and Dominican College (N.Y.) develop steering committees around card use and have enlisted students to promote the programs on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Administrators in some places have asked marketing classes to take on card promotion as a project. 

6. Partner with off-campus businesses effectively.

Although a college or university can increase revenue from partnerships with off-campus retailers and restaurants, it’s inefficient to approach all businesses that surround the campus. To start with, “Go with the locations that students frequent,” says Emery. “Grow the off-campus program at a realistic rate, and once that gets off the ground, you’ll have merchants coming to you instead of the other way around.” One strategy that works well is encouraging students to ask merchants about accepting the campus card. “Students can really help you recruit off-campus partners,” Emery notes. “That, in turn, builds relationships between the campus and the community.”

7. Consider whether branded cards are right for you.

Creating cards in advance so they’re ready for students’ arrival helps ensure happy faces during those early days of the academic year.Establishing partnerships is important in a closed-loop system for campus cards, but some institutions are finding that it’s more beneficial to switch to a system that’s closer to a debit card. Branded cards pair with entities like Discover, Visa, or MasterCard and can be associated with a certain bank. This allows the cards to be used anywhere, even internationally.

Emery notes that there’s been an increase in the number of campuses issuing cards like these, driven in part by student familiarity with bank debit cards. They’re convenient, and there’s less administration required compared to closed-loop systems.

However, branded cards do carry fees associated with each brand; usually, a certain percentage of transaction dollars goes to a company or bank instead of the school. “They’re very attractive,” says Emery. “But they’re not for everyone. An institution should consider all the costs before making the switch.”

8. Think about every aspect of security.

Card systems come with levels of security in their technology implementation, to protect student and faculty data that resides in card system databases. But it’s also vital to act quickly in the case of lost or stolen cards, especially in programs where so many functions are part of the card system, like residence hall access. So be prepared, and ensure that users are prepared, too.

“We’ve given our campus police a card printer so students can go there when our office is closed,” says Doug Vanderpoel, director of auxiliary services at Mount Holyoke College (Mass.). “The old cards can be instantly deactivated, so there’s not much of an issue with unauthorized use.”

The extra security is necessary, he adds, because the college’s card program is tied to numerous off-campus retailers, meal plans, dorm rooms, and other everyday functions. Vanderpoel says, “When someone loses a card, they lose a lot. So, being able to replace them at any time is important. We consider the added security a benefit, not a cost.”

9. Reduce issuance costs by creating cards in advance.

At Emory University, students arriving for the first day of school don’t have to stand in long lines, waiting for their campus cards. Instead, the card office requests that those with new cards upload their photos through the student services site. Students pick up the cards when they check into their residence halls for the first time, and staff members can get them from the card office whenever it’s convenient. In addition, new faculty and staff request their cards via an employee portal.

Printing the cards over the summer reduces the need for more staff members on orientation days, says Tom Watkins, director of card services. Also, the university doesn’t need to buy more printers so that card issuance goes quickly on the first few days.

10. Consider integrating mobile devices with card programs.

Although some administrators favor a move to mobile-only programs (see “A Look Beyond Campus Cards”), the switchover from cards to devices will likely take years just to appear on the horizon. “I don’t believe campus cards are going to go away in favor of mobile anytime soon,” notes Watkins, “but mobile does add functionality that schools should consider.” He points out that card users can check their account balances through a secured card office website. Also, the department can issue emails when a balance seems to be getting low, sending the message to a mobile device so that a student can address the issue quickly. Pairing mobility with card usage makes sense, Watkins notes, and part of Emory’s plans for the future involve investigating more interplay between campus cards and mobile devices.

In general, administration of card programs can come with numerous challenges. CFOs and other administrators need to address security issues, closed-loop or branded systems, and marketing tactics for increasing usage. But the benefits of a well-run card program can be formidable: greater efficiency in operations, cooperation among departments, connections between students and staff members, and more revenue. “Card programs come with so much potential,” says NACCU’s Adkins. “They present an opportunity to streamline the operations of a school, and enhance revenue in a meaningful way.”

Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.