More Than Meets the Eye

Pick a card, any card. While magicians may use this line to capture the attention of their audience, universities are faced with different cards and different dealers, and often their audience makes it difficult to produce a winning hand.

Today's students want an identification card that also can give them access to buildings, let them check out library materials, make copies, purchase items from campus stores, buy food at dining facilities and, often, even more. The college population is not happy with a plastic ID card that just sits in their wallets.

The card system at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, is advanced enough to be programmed to allow a female student who plays an instrument into certain all-female residence halls during open practice times, according to Meg Jackson, administrative assistant for facilities management. While this sophisticated system is not the norm on most college campuses, it shows that, with the right planning, anything can be done.

Beyond the basics Many campuses first introduced cards for identification purposes. Those cards then evolved into access-control cards, letting students and staff into certain buildings and keeping others on the outside.

"We have used cards in our housing program for building access for eight years," says Jim Day, director of student affairs at the University of Georgia, Athens. Yet, as technology improves and more capabilities are available, universities are finding it necessary--and beneficial--to upgrade systems.

Vanderbilt's card can be used in the vending machines, laundry rooms, and to make purchases at university-managed bookstores and dining areas. "We are adding student health services," says Jackson, "so students will soon be able to use the card to purchase medicine."

At most universities, the card has evolved over time, not immediately jumping into a one-for-all system. For example, the University of Georgia's began as a stand-alone access system for residence halls, and Vanderbilt's system was first instituted for dining services.

"As more people began using the card and became more knowledgeable about it, more departments jumped on the bandwagon," says Jackson. "It is good for the university; students spend more."

Working together With buildings spread over large areas and different departments needing different things, integrating an all-campus access-control/card system can be an overwhelming task. While it is mandatory to have the necessary groundwork--cable, wiring and phone lines--it is important to have cooperation among departments and staff.

"A lot of departments pitched in to help," says Jackson. "We determined that it was easier for each department to maintain its own access. The bookstore does its own, we do ours, yet we are all networked on the same system." The library soon will be interfaced.

The University of Georgia will integrate its housing access system with the rest of the campus this summer. "We use a variety of technology to hook our buildings together," says Day, "including fiber optics and some phone lines." To back up the access-control system, the university has staffed desks at entrances of the larger residence halls and installed closed-circuit TV. The system also records remote-control release of door locks at most residence halls.

Managing the database can be cumbersome, as Robert Hopkins, director of housing at the University of Pittsburgh, is quick to admit. "Our population comes and goes," he says. "Students change rooms, change roommates, change buildings, change complexes. It is more than just changing the student's access--it is authorizing the change, changing the access system from building A to building B; and while they are moving, they need access to both buildings. Then, you need to terminate access to building A. The relational database is more sophisticated; it is not as simple as a few keystrokes."

Counting the money Colleges and universities are constantly looking for ways to increase the bottom line. Many are finding that offering students a debit card is a way to bring more money to the school. At the University of Pittsburgh, the card is a true debit card. Not only is it good at on-campus bookstores and dining facilities, but also students can use it to make purchases at many off-campus businesses that are partnering with the university.

"The card gives students the ability to model adult behavior," says Pittsburgh's Hopkins. "They can take mom and dad to dinner and put it on their card. Some institutions prefer students to use the card for vending to buy a drink or run the washing machine, but we want them to spend the $79 on a book and buy the nice dinner."

Yet, some schools do not want to form off-campus partnerships because they want to keep the money in-house, including Vanderbilt. "In our laundry, for instance, we didn't raise our prices when we purchased the new card equipment," says Jackson. "But, we found that spending increased with the use of the card. The card makes it so much easier for students. They spend more on campus; we aren't complaining."

The smart choice Another factor in determining the type of card is the system purchased. In order to have a true 24-hour-accessible debit card, it is becoming necessary to purchase smart cards. These cards are equipped with a computer chip that maintains a student's data--all vendors do is swipe the card. With a magnetic stripe, vendors must have access to the university's on-line database to gather information about the student. This can create problems when the system is down or the university is closed. However, the key is to plan for what might be needed in the future.

"Our card architecture is set up for a barcode for the library, magnetic stripe for most access, and a debit stripe, which we currently do not have an application for," says University of Georgia's Day. "There is room for a chip, but we didn't put one in, yet. We designed it as an on-line system for the future."

At the University of Pittsburgh, students have an ID card that also is coded for building access. However, they must open an account for the debit-card system, which can be used at on- and off-campus sites.

"There has to be money in the account to spend it," says Hopkins. "It has a magnetic stripe that identifies the person, which goes back to our database and verifies the person and information." The future for students at the University of Pittsburgh may include a smart card, but first, according to Hopkins, the price must become more reasonable.

"Right now, the system is required to be linked and on-line for students to make purchases," he says. "There are times when the system doesn't work or is not accurate to the day or the hour. Smart cards were designed for the business environment where you expect the place to close and you can do maintenance." Whatever system a university chooses and to whatever extent it is used, most administrators agree that it is important to offer students some type of card system, as well as plan for future uses.

Losing a student ID card is not uncommon and can be a headache. Yet, when that card also provides access to a student's residence hall, as well as allows the student to purchase meals, it becomes more than a headache--it affects their livelihood.

"If a card is lost or stolen, it is the owner's responsibility to notify someone--either the card office, point-of-sale station or anywhere else the card is used," says Meg Jackson, administrative assistant for facilities management, Vanderbilt University. "It is all computerized, so once it is taken care of by one office, a new card is issued and the old card no longer works."

Students at the University of Georgia do not always have to have their card, just their hand. "We use hand geometry identification for access to dining halls," says Jim Day, director of student affairs. "You walk up to the dining hall, swipe your card and put your hand in the hand reader. We also are using this system at our recreation center." If a student forgets his or her card or doesn't want to carry it, he or she can punch in a personal-identification number and then place his or her hand in the hand reader. This saves hassles caused by lost cards, because the card cannot be used unless the hand identification is correct.

Yet, when students do need a card replacement, it isn't free. Most universities charge a fee for issuing new cards, often up to $25 per card.

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