Campus Card Tricks

One card does it all at Northeastern university in Boston. On campus, the card system provides access to residence halls, labs, gyms, the health center and other facilities. It allows students to buy books or check books out of the university libraries. The card also covers long distance phone calls and accesses declining balance accounts at school dining halls and student centers. It eliminates the need to collect quarters for laundry machines and vending machines. It pays for tickets to university events.

Of course, many campus cards already handle these services. What makes the Northeastern University Husky card unusual is its off-campus utility.

Banking and More

The Husky Card allows students to make deposits and withdrawals at BankBoston branches and ATMs throughout New England. Student cardholders can dial up bank services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, over the telephone and through the computer. An X-Press Check debit feature gives students the ability to purchase items at any of the 15 million worldwide establishments that accept MasterCard.

Another unique aspect of the Northeastern University card: The university itself prints and issues the cards on campus while students wait. Before now, this has been prohibited by requirements related to the use of logos such as MasterCard.

Time for a Change

Three years ago, Northeastern officials set about re-organizing the university’s campus card system, which had developed problems. Responsibility for various aspects of the card system was diffused. Campus security issued the cards. An outside food service supplier provided the equipment used to debit declining balance accounts at dining halls. Another system provided access control for various campus buildings.

The cards themselves didn’t function well. The basic laminated ID card carried an instant photo and a magnetic stripe. But some add-ons affected utility. For example, a decision was made to affix validation labels to the backs of the cards. In practice, the labels often damaged the mag-stripes and prevented the campus readers from reading the cards. After a while, the students stopped depending on the cards.

"We decided it was time for a change," says Martin Damian, university bursar. "In thinking about what our cards should do, we developed a mission statement saying that our job is to provide excellent service while creating revenue streams for the school."

Revenues generated by the card system, when it worked, came from campus vending machines, the food service facilities, several off-campus vendors participating in a closed system set up by the university, and the bookstore, which is operated by a private vendor.

According to Damian, university administrators wanted a new card platform that would maintain existing sources of revenue and add banking services. "We had seen bank card systems used by other schools," Damian says. "Those systems usually function only in the local bank network. They are called closed systems. But we wanted our system to function in a certain way, with one card as a key to all university services as well as to all kinds of banking services."

In short, administrators wanted a student ID card that would carry a major card logo such as MasterCard. Not only that, they wanted to issue the cards on campus upon request.

Obstacles and Objections

"We talked to a number of banks," Damian says. "They kept saying no. They wouldn’t permit us to generate cards on campus. If a student wanted a card with a MasterCard logo, he or she must go to a bank to get the card."

MasterCard has strict requirements related to the security of card media and the security of their computerized database. The organization fears that exceptions to these rules risk compromising security.

Other issues argued against the idea. According to MasterCard rules, if an establishment accepts one kind of MasterCard, it must accept all MasterCards. But Northeastern wanted to use the cards to access declining balance accounts on campus. Since only students and others connected with the university have declining balance accounts, not all university services accepting the cards would be able to accept all MasterCard holders.

Throughout Damian’s search for a bank, these objections arose again and again. Finally, Damian approached Bay Bank (now BankBoston). "We were interested in the idea because we are interested in doing business with students," says Heidi Harring, director, bank of the future, at BankBoston.

Harring goes on to note that banks in other cities serving other university communities may have different strategic marketing priorities. In Boston, marketing to students makes sense, not because students keep a lot of money in the bank, but because many tend to remain in the city or region to work following graduation. In addition, BankBoston wanted to provide a service to Northeastern, which ranks as one of the bank’s important institutional customers.

As a result, BankBoston carried on negotiations between MasterCard and Northeastern and hammered out a plan acceptable to both sides.

Solutions and Software

A variance issued by MasterCard answered the acceptance question, allowing students to use their cards on campus to access declining balance accounts, without requiring all MasterCards to be accepted everywhere on campus.

Northeastern solved the security problem by agreeing, at great expense, to create a secure facility on campus to store and print cards with MasterCard logos. A closed circuit television system monitors the card stock room 24 hours a day. Window alarms protect against break-ins. And a dual-access locking system restricts access to the room and a vault inside the room. With a dual access system, two individuals, each with one half of the access code, must enter the room and the vault together.

BankBoston also developed encryption software to assure the integrity of data communications between the campus and the bank.

Canton, Ohio-based Diebold provided a software gateway on the campus side of the data communications network. The gateway solved a key technical problem. Conventional Northeastern student ID cards recorded social security numbers on the mag-stripe. But a MasterCard uses formatted 16-digit account numbers that identify all MasterCards as MasterCards, specify the issuing bank, and identify the cardholder.

Under the system, when a student applies for a card at the campus office, the student completes an application, which is keyed into the system and sent over the secure network to the bank. The BankBoston system processes the application and, if it is approved, assigns a MasterCard number. This information then returns to campus over the network.

"When the information returns, we have to link the student’s campus ID number and the MasterCard number to identify the student," Damian says. All of this data processing takes about 10 minutes. While waiting, the student sits for a digital photo, which is added to the card print order.

In operation for about a year, the Husky Card has won wide acceptance from the 13,000 students eligible to carry it. According to Damian, 3,100 students had signed up for the card by March of this year. "I think this means that within three or four years, we’ll be close to 9,000 students," he says.

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with experience in higher education issues.

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