For a college student, losing the key to a residence hall can be an annoyance, even an embarrassment. But for school officials responsible for safeguarding students and property, a lost key can be the initial breach in a system that compromises a building's entire security system.
That's why schools such as Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., are turning to technology for a solution. Oregon State is preparing to install an access-control card system this summer at several residence halls, says Valerie Cooley, manager of the university's ID center.
Electronic access-control systems give colleges and universities with numerous facilities the ability to monitor access and determine not only who can enter a building, but also where and when access is allowed.
"This will be a much more secure way of controlling access to the buildings," says Cooley. "We lose a lot of keys. It's not very secure."
The door that has no key Instead of a key and mechanical lock installed and maintained by locksmiths, buildings with access-control systems have doors secured electronically and opened with an access- control card. Some cards are swiped through a reader that can decode information contained on a magnetic stripe or computer chip, and some are proximity cards that can engage the system by being placed near a reader, without making physical contact.
Ideally, a school with traditional keys and locks would install new locks each time a key was lost or unaccounted for. But when you're dealing with hundreds of students and keys, the workload that would impose on a university's locksmiths would be overwhelming.
"We did a study of one residence hall, and if we had to re-key every time a key was lost, we would have to replace 397 keys an average of four times a day," says Don O'Shall, manager of access control for Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
In effect, electronic access control accomplishes the same goal. Once alerted that a card is lost, a school with an access-control system can immediately de-activate it and program a new card for the student.
"With a card system, a lost card can be cancelled immediately," says O'Shall. "During the day, it can be replaced immediately. At night, a student would have to wait until the morning."
The access-control system monitors doors and can detect if someone is trying to enter without authorization. At Lehigh, if someone is tampering with a door, the system alerts security officials immediately. If a door is held or propped open, an alarm sounds initially at the door. If no one closes the door after about two minutes, the system notifies campus security officials.
Most systems are part of a centralized computer network that includes data about students and staff-what courses they are taking, what buildings they need access to, etc. Schools can program access control very specifically to give temporary or short-term access to parts of the campus, or issue personalized access to campus visitors.
At Oregon State, the university decided proximity cards would work better than magnetic-stripe cards. Cooley says that to abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act, proximity cards were easier for people with disabilities to work than cards that users had to swipe.
More than security As schools have introduced card systems onto their campuses, many soon realize that the cards have the capacity to do far more than enhance security. Many schools have incorporated additional functions onto the magnetic stripes or computer chips on the cards.
At the University of Colorado in Boulder, students and staff can use the access card, known as the Buff OneCard, not only to gain access to buildings, but also to check out books at the university library, enter the recreation center, make long-distance phone calls and establish a "declining balance" account to pay for services, supplies and food at various campus businesses. Students can make deposits on the card in advance and use it as a debit card to make purchases.
With so many crucial uses of the card, students are careful with them.
"I think students really do keep track of their cards," says Susan Dorsey, Buff OneCard director.
Colorado students used to have more than one card-a general college ID and a housing ID. Other departments of the university had separate setups.
"We had a lot of different departments doing their own aspects of a card system," says Dorsey. "This brought everybody together under one system."
In the future, the university hopes to integrate the area's public transportation system into the Buff OneCard, as part of a smart-card system that uses a computer chip to store information instead of a magnetic stripe.
Keys for survival Even at schools that have embraced access-control systems, keys and locks are still an integral part of campus facilities.
"We haven't done away with keys," says O'Shall. "In some of our older buildings, we can replace locks and keys just as easily, and it's less costly."
In systems with cards that provide entry and display student identification, a misplaced card could become a more serious problem if the person who finds it already knows where the student lives.
Individual residence-hall rooms at Lehigh still have traditional locks and keys.
"We have cores and keys made up in advance," says O'Shall. "We can replace a core in a matter of minutes."
On older campuses such as Lehigh, some of the buildings "don't lend themselves to electronic security," adds O'Shall.
Many colleges and universities that have installed access-control systems say that incidents of crime have lessened. They attribute some of that to the enhanced security the technology provides, but also to the increased emphasis schools and society in general have placed on security.
"There is a lot more education and awareness about security," says O'Shall. "Kids come to school now expecting a certain level of security that they didn't several years ago."