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Tomorrow's I.D. Card Program

IHEs are looking to make their campus card services positively futuristic.
University Business, Feb 2006

Just as library media centers and wireless implementations are keeping universities and colleges on the cutting edge of technology, so too are card programs trying to stay ahead, bringing more services and better access control into the mix.

Now that campus cards have folded in options that make them more akin to debit cards and card programs have tied departments together, many colleges and universities are looking into the future to incorporate even more functions and features into their student cards. Although many are in the planning stage, rather than already implementing changes, it shouldn't be long before the card programs of today head into tomorrow.

One of the most popular new directions for card programs is expanded banking and financial services, melding not just university accounting departments and student resources, but also local banks and retailers. The practice of IHEs forming relationships with financial institutions has become more common, and it is leading to campus card managers thinking about tying together multiple banks and stores.

At Pennsylvania State University, a shift in 2004 from using social security numbers to randomly generated numbers on cards caused the university to think more deeply about its services and how students were using the cards. Like many schools, Penn State found that the social security redo caused a rethinking of the entire card structure, giving the university the impetus needed to make major changes. The school is now aggressively expanding the number of off-campus restaurants and stores that honor the cards, according to Joel Weidner, associate director of Information Systems.

As more services get added, Penn State is also pondering how to incorporate a rewards system that can encourage greater card use. Similar to credit cards that give users cash back or gifts depending on their level of credit use, university card programs could create a reward system that gives students discounts on books, free event access, or just extra funds for going with card over cash.

"For undergrads, the cards are convenient, if parents are funding the accounts," says Weidner. "For that population, that's incentive enough. But for graduate, faculty, and staff, there have to be more compelling reasons to use the cards rather than debit cards." As a first test of an incentive program, the university teamed up with eight local merchants that offered gift certificates to winners of a monthly contest. To be entered, campus card holders only had to use their cards. Since the contests proved popular, the school is now looking into how to tie together on-campus sales with greater reliance on campus cards. For example, Weidner notes, it is likely that there could be contests designed to increase bookstore sales by entering students for a chance to win a semester's worth of books, but only if they use their cards at the bookstore for other purchases first.

A reward system of sorts is already in place at Georgia Institute of Technology for students who add a significant amount of funds to their cards at the beginning of the semester. "It's a twist on credit card rewards," says Rosalind Meyers, associate vice president for Auxiliary Services. "This gives them an incentive upfront to use the card, rather than rewarding them for past use."

To encourage students to add a few hundred dollars to their account before they even move their computers into the dorm, the school has found that it isn't the students who need to be convinced. Parents receive information about the campus cards and their merit--including how students can't buy alcohol with them, a big selling point--near the beginning of the school year.

Now, departments at
Georgetown don't
need a cashbox to
process student charges.

Incentive programs that encourage more card use are likely to comprise a major part of campus card programs in the future, notes Meyers, who believes that many IHEs will have to do strategic marketing if they want to keep up with the competition. "In many ways, colleges pioneered the debit system," she says. "But now they're in danger of losing that advantage to credit and debit cards. Schools will have to think harder about how to compete for attention."

In addition to boosting the number of places that students and faculty can use cards off campus, schools are also looking at how to increase on-campus services as well. The campus cards of the future could be powerful tools for logging on to computers, doing online purchasing, and eliminating cashboxes in every department.

"You're starting to see much more integration in card programs, where there's a kind of one-card, Big Bang approach," says Michael Peele, GOCard Services director at Georgetown University (D.C.). In 2001, the university began a major initiative to put card readers across the campus, on everything from washing machines to copiers and printers to every single vending machine, and now has over 700 readers.

The readers have made the biggest difference in departments, Peele notes. Because many departments have to deal with cash transactions--the Chemistry department charging students for broken test tubes, for example--accepting only the campus card for payment has made an impact. "We work to inform faculty that they don't have to keep a cashbox in the drawer anymore," he says.

Peele believes that the advantage campus cards have over debit cards comes from smaller-ticket purchases like photocopies. Students might be hesitant to swipe a debit card for an item that costs a nickel or a dime, but are happy to use a campus card for such a buy. He predicts that if colleges put more readers into place, and encourage card use for less expensive items and services, they'll see a difference in how often cards are employed.

Cards are due to make a much bigger splash in the future with network authentication, asserts Marc Belanger, application specialist at Marquette University (Wisc.). Many IHEs are investigating how to combine campus card capability with network access, which is usually handled with small devices that generate "tokens," or random numbers for secure network log-ins.

The strategy would require a chip in the card, like a SmartCard, which could mean that it will be some time before IHEs can actually blend authentication with cards, but it's a direction many would like to go in, notes Sara Neer, manager of BuckID card services at The Ohio State University.

"Replacing password login with card-driven authentication would make things much easier," she says. "That's going to be a major area of interest ahead."

Also due for a boom in the near future: More online purchasing power. Several IHEs have begun to expand the number of unmanned kiosks on campus--for students to place book orders, input coffee selections instead of waiting in lengthy lines, or just buy items from a school-sponsored site.

The cards of the future could be powerful tools for logging on to computers and doing online purchasing.

At the University of Alabama, there will be an increasing drive to create more of these types of services, says Jeanine Brooks, director of the Action Card program. "Online purchasing is hot," she says. "People have become so used to using the web for shopping, and schools have the opportunity to capitalize on that." Already, the school has put more kiosks in place and expanded its e-store, which features selections from its bookstore.

Although most colleges have separate cards for ID and building access, several schools have been trying out pilot programs that merge the two functions, making an ID and proximity cards that will track access more effectively.

Penn State began a test program in December in a few select locations with a small number of students, and officials there would like to eventually give the new capability to those who need higher-end proximity cards, such as researchers.

Bringing together access functionality with ID services will have its challenges, however. Some universities have been disappointed by the lack of durability with cards, and giving them more use will increase that problem. Also tricky is how to integrate ID and access in a way that is safe for students.

"In the same way that you don't put your name and address on your keys, you'd want to think twice about having a card that gives someone all the information about a student and access to their dorm, in case a card is lost," says Penn State's Weidner.

The expense of new readers could also limit adoption, he adds. "It's a chicken-and-egg thing," he notes. "Until there's more need for the cards, no one will fund the readers. But I'm not going to buy 50,000 cards if the readers aren't in place."

For some universities and colleges, the answer may lie in a card program in which no cards are needed. Thanks to biometrics, some IHEs have started to minimize campus ID card use. For example, in 2003, the University of Central Florida in Orlando began using fingerprint technology to grant students entry into its new Recreation and Wellness Center. Other schools have taken notice, and are looking to biometrics for their own campuses.

At Carleton University, Ontario, Canada, the Athletics department can be accessed through a handprint, and the school is looking for other ways to employ the technology, mainly because the students have a tendency to either lose cards or forget them in their dorms. Ed Kane, assistant vice president of University Services, predicts that more colleges will look into combining biometrics with cards for an extra layer of security.

"Students don't always have their cards with them," he says, "but they have their hands and fingers. It would be expensive to replace all readers with biometrics, but adding some of that capability will give universities more flexibility in the future."

Other IHEs are investigating ways to tie together campus security with ID and proximity cards. Brooks notes that when University of Alabama students use their cards to access a building, the doors are tied into camera systems that record entries. Because the systems are integrated with other university databases, campus security knows immediately who is entering the building, and whether the student's photo on record matches the face coming through the door.

In addition to futuristic plans about where campus card programs can go, there are also some directions that don't seem worthy of investigation to many IHEs.

Most notably, a number of schools have thought about whether to change cards from common plastic form to key fobs, similar to Speedpass cards used at Exxon gas stations, or even minicards, like those given out by supermarkets or video stores.

But don't look for students to jangle fobs or minicards in their pockets anytime soon, say some school officials. Schools can't exactly mirror the retail market because, unlike gas stations or grocery stores, much more information needs to be on the cards. Typically, fobs contain only a name, an account number, and an address, but little else. At this point, most IHEs have a lot of data either on the card or tied to it in a database. Perhaps more significantly, the lack of any photo on the ID means that services would actually become more limited, since readers would have to be able to call up a student's image whenever an ID is swiped.

"We've moved away from bar codes, and we'd like to see a key fob system," says Ohio State's Neer. "But it's just not user friendly in terms of photos. Many tasks on campus, like showing your ID before a test, require photo identification, and it would be difficult to meet those needs with fobs."

Another change that's slow in coming--or not due for arrival at all, some believe--has been SmartCards, which carry chips that store data. Although some IHEs are watching the consumer and banking worlds for greater SmartCard adoption, in general many are more focused on expanding their services rather than dabbling in the new technology. SmartCards are slick, but they've proven too expensive to produce, and schools are hesitant to invest significant funds in a card that hasn't even taken off in the consumer arena.

Even though cards might not change much, readers are likely to make a transition. Already, several IHEs are expanding the number of wireless readers available to student groups, event planners, and departments so that campus cards can be swiped from any location.

Marquette University plans to invest in more wireless readers rather than hardwire additional parts of the campus, according to application specialist Belanger. "Given their portability and flexibility, and given the increase in wireless capability on campuses, I think more schools will see the benefits of wireless readers," Belanger says.

With readers available to be loaned out to groups, and services that extend far beyond a college's physical boundaries, campus cards are poised to make a bigger impact in the next decade.

Although SmartCards and key fobs might be years away, students and faculty won't have to wait long for other major changes to keep occurring as they swipe and shop.

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn., who specializes in covering technology.

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