Campuses Welcome Proximity Cards

Historically, campus cards were used for identification and to gain access to residence halls and other buildings: swipe the card on the reader, the door unlocks, and entrance is gained. As technology improved, the cards became “smart,” allowing for access to student records, secure computer login, printing and transportation services, meal plans, and library services. At Cedarville University, a private campus of 3,300 undergraduate and graduate students in Ohio, students swipe their cards to register attendance at daily worship. These days, smart cards are also used as debit cards for laundry services, bookstore purchases, vending machines, cafeteria purchases, and even off-campus shopping/dining.

Can these handy little cards get any better? Indeed, they can. They’re being upgraded from smart cards to contactless smart cards, where they can be “read” when held near an electronic reader. “Bye-bye” magnetic stripes, “hello” the ability to leave the card in a book bag and simply hold the book bag within (typically) five inches of the reader to gain building access in a rainstorm or when the temperature is below freezing. That’s the contactless part. Bonus! The cards can still be used for all the other services mentioned above, which is the smart part.

Here are the stories of two universities that have made, or are in the process of making, the upgrade from swipe smart cards to contactless smart “proximity” cards.

DePauw University
A couple of years ago, administrators at DePauw University, a private school of approximately 2,300 undergraduate students in Greencastle, IN, began the process of upgrading their magnetic swipe smart cards to proximity cards. There were two reasons for the switch. The first was the rather mundane need to replace older swipe card readers that were at the ends of their life cycles. The second was to introduce FollowMe Printing, where a print job is held in queue until the student arrives at the printer and flashes his/her card to release the print. Print jobs that are queued and then not needed can be canceled, thus saving paper.

“We determined that he proximity cards would give more flexibility to students and employees using the printers,” says Carol L. Smith, CIO, “as they don’t have to dig through their bags or wallets to retrieve their ID cards and swipe them to release their printing. We also felt we could have that same level of flexibility and convenience for building access: they can just pass their bag past the reader to open the door. In addition, the proximity card readers are better for the outdoor elements, as they don’t get iced up or wet and refuse to work as swipe readers do.”

Smith notes that the largest challenge in upgrading to proximity cards was replacing all the students’ cards. “We’re a fully residential campus, and all the students had identification cards that were swipe only,” she explains. “We chose to pre-create all the cards for returning students with their existing credentials and photos. We sequenced them by living unit, assigning each living unit a specific window of time in which to pick up their cards. We similarly sequenced the cards for approximately 500 staff members. It was an expeditious way to handle this logistical challenge. Other than that, it was an easy transition.”

Considering all the services the DePauw card system offers, the fact that the transition was easy was a big benefit. Specifically, the cards offer building access to University-owned residence halls and living units, laundry and vending charges, meal plan and food purchases at campus dining halls, and out-in-town purchases at local downtown restaurants.

The cost of the upgrade is not quite as simple. Smith estimates total cost to install a swipe card reader at $3,000 per door. If each building has two doors, then infrastructure costs are approximately $6,000 per building. Additionally, the cost of card stock is about $5 per card. “The upgrade is not inexpensive,” she says candidly. “So we’re upgrading a certain number of readers every year. It’s worth the peace of mind the security gives students. Overall, we have a safe community, and the proximity cards allow students to feel safe, which is important because your residence hall is your home.”

The return on investment comes from the availability to restrict access through the system, as well as track access of who came and went in case an incident does occur. “It’s critical for us to provide those resources and invest in that manner for our campus,” Smith notes.

University of Iowa
Currently, the University of Iowa, a national research university of more than 30,000 students in Iowa City, is transitioning its magnetic stripe Iowa One Card to a contactless smart card. According to a June 2012 article by Anne Kapler published on Iowa Now, the official online source for news from the University of Iowa, “Facilities Management, the Department of Public Safety, and Information Technology Services are working together to integrate Iowa One Cards with the University’s electronic access control systems.” It’s definitely a project requiring the coordination of all three departments, as the systems are installed on more than 1,100 doors in 60 buildings, including all of the University’s residence halls.

For Iowa administrators, adding proximity card functionality to all the services the One Card provides — including the ability to check out library materials, purchase books and supplies from the University Book Store, use the laundry facilities in the residence halls, enter athletic events, and more (including using the card as an ATM/PIN-based debit card if they have an account at Hills Bank & Trust) — unites essential card services, sensibly simplifying life for both card issuers and card holders.

In addition to simplicity, the proximity cards have the advantage of offering higher security than keys because, when they are lost or when the cardholder leaves the University, they are deactivated remotely. Yet a third advantage the article notes is that one combined card, as opposed to separate smart cards and proximity cards, reduces overhead costs, which surely brings a smile to administrators’ faces.

New incoming students will receive their new Iowa One Cards at orientation. Returning students are able to have their existing Iowa One Cards upgraded at no cost.

Clearly, student identification cards have come a long way since first being introduced. Having gone through the upgrade process herself, Smith offers advice to two camps of administrators. The first is those who have no services on their cards: “Definitely upgrade to proximity cards and, when considering services to add, look for those areas of activity where the most value can be gained by providing students with self service.” She also recommends ensuring that the first functionality added is something students use every day so they don’t have to ask themselves, “Do I need my card today?” Once you change the culture so everyone is accustomed to carrying their cards, then adding services is easier from a campus culture perspective.

The second camp of administrators for whom Smith has advice is those who have services on their swipe cards and are considering upgrading to proximity cards: “The key is to consider whether the value of the proximity readers from both convenience and security perspectives is worth the investment. It isn’t inexpensive, but there is a lot of value to be gained.” 

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