Getting carded on campus

How campus card offices can drive engagement across campus

At The University of Alabama, football weekends rule. So imagine a student who’s got a big date, a tailgate spot and an electronic ticket to the Saturday football game on his campus Action Card—but then loses the card on Friday night.

To save the day, the campus card office is open for business on game days and can quickly replace a lost card.

“We open three hours prior to kickoff and remain open until the start of the third quarter,” says Jeanine Brooks, director of the Action Card office at the state flagship university. “That manages what could be a stressful situation for a student.”

It’s just one example of the flexible, student-focused service provided by campus card offices. The campus card has evolved to become much more than a meal ticket; on many campuses, it is the electronic glue that connects students, faculty and staff with access to buildings, vendors, food service, events, laundry facilities, fitness centers and other amenities.

“An effective card program is well-known as part of the identity of the school,” says Crystal Bazarnic, communications manager at the National Association of Campus Card Users. “The card is much more than an ID card; it is a visible symbol that you are a part of the institution’s community.”

Regardless of the size of the staff or office, efficient campus card programs share several best practices: A focus on customer service, cutting-edge technology and collaboration with the campus community and beyond.

Service with a smile

Customer service tops the priorities in the most successful campus card offices. Student workers greet visitors to the card office at University of Alabama—and a lost card won’t necessarily cost any cash. Anyone can obtain a temporary replacement that will work for one week. If the original card isn’t found, staff will create a new one for $35.

Troy Heath at Mohawk College in Ontario, Canada, refers to its ONE Card office as “small but mighty”—with a manager and a few part-time staffers. However, a strong focus on customer service allows the office to continually meet student needs, says Heath, chief business development and ancillary services officer at the college.

When the ONE Card office is hiring, service experience is key. “Typically, we look for food service staff and public- facing people,” Heath says. “The goal is always to ensure that the student walks away happy with the overall experience.”

Process efficiencies such as digitizing card issuance can streamline the work of even small offices. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, three full-time employees serve more than 1,200 students per day with just two check-in desks and three carding stations at the ID center, says Sarah Bohannen, assistant director of i-card programs.

During peak summer registration periods, the office also has student and part-time employee help.

Each summer, card offices turn to mail, email, social media and freshman orientations to give incoming students and their parents instructions for obtaining a campus card.

And growing numbers of colleges have taken the process online. At Mohawk College, a student will submit a photo to the ONE Card website; 24 hours later, the card is ready for pickup (for which a government ID must be shown).

And at Alabama, online card registration means “it is not challenging to get a student to have their Action Card made,” Brooks says. “Use of their Action Card is part of their daily routine.”

During orientation, students will use the new card to eat in the dining hall, and most are excited to become a cardholder. “That is a tangible item to show everyone they are part of the campus community, and they are proud of the card,” he says.

The tech connection

Officials must continually assess new card technologies and services, says Bazarnic of the campus card association. Some of the current trends include mobile credentialing, expansion of campus Wi-Fi, and cards that work with vending machines, buses, dorm entrances and event access.

“The speed of technology places constant pressure on our offices and service providers to continually update hardware and software applications to maintain the quality and security of our services and programs,” says Alabama’s Brooks.

For instance, at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, the campus card office is now incorporating near-field communication, or NFC, into its cards, says John Beckwith, director of campus business services.

The technology allows two electronic devices to communicate when they come within a few inches of each other. For instance, near-field cards can be waved in front of a similarly equipped door to unlock it, or held next to a vending machine to buy a snack or soda.

“NFC can offer a lot more data storage on the card than the traditional mag stripe,” Beckwith says. “It could work on one system for buses, another system for food service, and another for building entry, and it’s highly secure.”

Soon, students at Loyola Marymount may be able to download a smartphone app with security credentials—turning the phone into a card that provides entrance to buildings, access to dining plans and other services. “That’s where we’re going eventually,” Beckwith says. “The app will identify you and ask for a PIN and you will be able to use it like your current card,” Beckwith says.

Technology has also become a vital part of marketing and communications for card offices. For instance, Alabama’s Action Card administrators focuses on social media to reach the digitally native Millennial and Gen Z generations, Brooks says. The office uses casual, brief language to respond to comments and it also offers online self-managed services, such as checking card balances or signing up for meal plan options.

Because student cards often double as bank cards and secondary forms of identification, campus card offices must stay vigilant about keeping up with changing regulations. For instance, new technologies make it easier for would-be identity thieves to target student identification cards.

“Ever since the Patriot Act was passed, we have to be very careful about verifying students’ identities,” says Kristy Vienne, assistant vice president for student services at Sam Houston State University in Texas. “If we don’t do our due diligence to make sure a person is genuinely enrolled, we could be giving someone access to the campus and the ability to get student loans. Our ID is often used as a secondary ID to get a state ID, so we are giving them something they could potentially board an airplane with.”

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education recently passed new cash management rules governing relationships between colleges and banks. For the many colleges and universities that allow students to use a campus card as a debit card, the new rules require ongoing review and revision to the card program. “Sometimes it feels like you’re aiming at a moving target, as rules and regulations often change,” Vienne says.

All of this requires highly technical staff. At The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, two full-time employees and some students run the front of the card office, but three full-time IT staff run the back end, says Jim Clinton, director of campus card services. In addition, 1.5 employees handle deposits and reconciliations daily.

But it’s the increased technical staff that really allows for better customer service. “You almost have to have a web portal these days to reach your customer base,” Clinton says.“Information from our site can greatly reduce phone calls to the office and help better inform the customer.”

Cardholders who log in to the office’s website can buy or change a meal plan, add to expense funds, check a card balance, sign up for gym membership or suspend a card. In addition, the site has policies spelled out for various types of users and videos to explain how it all works.

Card collaborations

The strongest card programs have leaders who look for ways to keep the card relevant to the wider campus community, Bazarnic says. That includes forging partnerships with departments across campus and vendors such as local restaurants, shops and boutiques. And as cards become more high-tech, they offer increasing amounts of relevant data that make them more valuable to various members of the campus community.

At Mohawk College, the card office is working to utilize data gathered by card usage reports. For instance, its staff and the dining department recently analyzed meal plan use.

“The data we gathered helped the dining operation better engage students by changing operating hours and menu selections,” Heath says. “For instance, we ended up closing some food service locations during certain hours that were rarely visited, and we even shut down one on-campus restaurant that was not valued by students based on our data.”

At Sam Houston State, the card office offers a robust event management system. Any department can check out the card office’s iPads, which scan campus cards to track attendance at campus concerts, performances, athletic events and lectures.

The department gets a list of all attendees, including student classification and email addresses. Vienna says, “Providing this service for campus events helps with security, ticket reservations and tracking attendance for extra credit.”


Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer.

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