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Pay on the way

How to make mobile payments work on campus
University Business, October 2015
  • A University of Buffalo student uses vending app to buy a drink from the machine.
  • Decals advertising new vending mobile payment app cover University of Buffalo service vans.
  • The first step to making a tuition payment on a mobile device at Weber State University is logging into one’s university account.
  • Weber State University students are provided with a quick snapshot of their tuition payment plan and can opt to see past account activity.
  • On the “Make a Payment” page, students can see their outstanding balance before submitting a payment on their mobile device.

Students may forget their campus cards in their rooms or figure they don’t need their wallet for a short walk around the quad. But the one thing they are likely never to be without is a phone.

In the consumer space, customers want to use their phones for many purposes, most certainly including retail transactions. To meet those expectations on campus, administrators at some colleges and universities have implemented mobile payment systems at dining halls, retail food outlets, bookstores, laundry rooms, parking lots and vending machines. At some institutions, parents and students can even make tuition payments from mobile devices.

Effectively rolling out mobile payment systems at spots across campus requires a plan. Here are snapshots from colleges showing how it can be done for parking—which many institutions have found is a good place to start—as well as vending and tuition.

Vending payments eliminate need for change

There are many types of apps at The State University of New York at Buffalo, says Keith Curtachio, director of IT for campus dining and shops.

The university launched mobile payments in summer 2014 when an app was released by its access and payment systems provider, CBORD. The team tested interest in the app with the university’s food vending machines.

“We saw this as a way to increase sales, since students would now have another form of payment available to them and could still make vending purchases even without cash,” says Ray Kohl, marketing manager for campus dining and shops.

The first step was to bring in focus groups to discuss the project and get buy-in from the university’s vending team and other stakeholders, such as students.

The 236 existing vending machines, which are dispersed in academic buildings and residence halls, were retrofitted with new technology that communicates with the app. Purchase involves making a selection, typing in the vending machine’s identification number, swiping the card icon in the app and then receiving the item.

Installing the new technology created holes in front of the machines. Now, large, illuminated tags that display each machine’s ID number and also advertise the mobile payment service cover the holes, says Kohl.

The app’s extensive marketing campaign included emails to students explaining the service, bus inserts, table tents in common areas and a banner wrapped around a university service vehicle. “We also created vinyl graphics for the floor in front of the machine banks,” says Curtachio. “The moment of point-of-sale is the perfect opportunity to capture students’ attention.”

Student response to the app has been only positive. “Students can email us, text us, write on our Facebook wall,” says Kohl. “There’s no way they can’t get to us if they have a problem—and we’ve received nothing.”

Other apps at UB let students make purchases at campuses retailers and pay for laundry. The laundry app refunds fees automatically, as the university covers those costs. Links to download the apps can be found in the main university app.

Paying for parking from anywhere on campus

During a 2014 parking modernization effort, officials at Cleveland State University found mobile payments in daily visitor lots to be a natural addition, says Ben Roger, director of parking and transportation services. “People often need receipts for parking, and carry credit cards more often than coins.”

Implementing a third-party parking payment app, Mobile Pay by PassportParking, required zero upfront investment. The only service costs were credit card processing fees.“We simply had to transfer our parking data to them, such as lot locations and for how long vehicles are allowed to be parked,” says Rogers.

Signage in the seven visitor lots was updated to include step-by-step instructions on how to use a phone to pay. A convenience fee of 25 cents, taken by PassportParking, is charged to the user for the credit card transaction.

After a soft rollout in 2014, the app gained traction in spring 2015, during which an average of 1,500 transactions each month were made. This summer, that number climbed by an additional 500 to 700 mobile transactions.

“We noticed that visitors to the rec center lot tend to use the app more than others,” says Rogers. “If someone is still working out or in the middle of playing a game of basketball when their time is almost up, they can pay for additional parking time without going back to their car.”

The convenience factor for St. Cloud State University in implementing a parking app relates in part to the harsh outdoor elements at the Minnesota campus. Visitors don’t like standing outside in line at machines to pay for parking, says Jennifer Furan Super, associate director of public safety. Students and guests now “have the flexibility of paying for parking from the warmth of their cars or on their walk to class.”

Launching the service, also provided by PassportParking, didn’t require a lot of effort, says Super. “For our department, the transfer of our lot data took a day-and-a-half. The communications department did a bit of advertising, and we were ready to roll out.”

During the initial launch in early 2015, which included a small marketing campaign, the app processed 7 percent to 8 percent of all credit card parking sales at the university’s three pay-as-you-go lots. The minimal credit card convenience fee is paid by the visitor.

“We were very pleased with that usage and hope increased marketing will lead to even higher usage,” says Super.

The 38 parking payment machines on San Diego Community College District’s 10 campuses don’t accept credit cards. In 2014, instead of investing in a machine upgrade, the district added the MobileNOW! parking payment app, with no startup or service costs.

“Even though our max parking fee is only $5 a day, many people do not carry cash at all,” says Debra Picou, supervisor of parking.

The district customized the app to work on each of its 10 campuses. A visitor has to pay the $5 fee only once if that person parks and moves to another campus on the same day, says Picou. Also the responsibility of the visitor is a 35 cent convenience fee per transaction.

MobileNOW! provided all informational signage and promotional credit cards that gave visitors two free hours of parking.

Giving families another option to pay those big bills

The IT department at Weber State University in northeastern Utah pushed two years ago to make all campus websites mobile-friendly. Bursar Michael Richter says the finance team saw this as an opportunity to shorten lines in his office by allowing tuition payments to be made by students or parents via a mobile-friendly website.

The site is accessed through Weber State’s main app. After logging in, a user can make a payment or see past payment history.

Adding the option was simple on the finance process side, because accepting mobile payments through their existing provider, TouchNet, is the same as for all other forms of payment. The IT team simply had to build a mobile-responsive payments page, according to Richter.

“Most tuition payments still come through desktops. But the number of mobile payments increases every semester,” he says.

Signs displaying a QR code that leads to the mobile tuition payment site have been posted in the campus cashiering line. Students can scan the code and pay the fee on the spot. “We are trying to bust the lines and inform students who may not even be aware of this option,” says Richter.

The ultimate purpose of offering mobile tuition payments is to give students and parents an additional, convenient option for paying large bills, says Richter. “Paying tuition needs to be as quick and painless as possible for them.”

Kylie Lacey is associate editor of UB.

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