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Business Officer Magazine

The One-Card Draw

Buy groceries, wash clothes, watch movies, dine out, open doors—all with a single card backed by a well-conceived system.

By Eric Rosenberg and Trina Ballantyne

All that is history now. In August 2001, we began implementing what is known as the Blackboard Unix Transaction System. Our primary objective was to find a single system to handle all card requirements so we could efficiently--and with minimal staffing--provide a high level of customer satisfaction. For that endeavor, we took a page from another recent venture. Stevens had just opened a new student service center providing a one-stop location for  resolving registration, financial aid, and billing issues. The student service center was an immediate success in terms of efficient customer services, proving well worth the substantial financial investment.

By comparison, the initial cost benefit did not look good for providing what we desired in a campus card system. In considering the services we were currently offering and would need to replace in the short term, we found the fixed investment was high for the hardware and implementation services. We decided to approach implementation as a long-term investment, expecting minimal initial financial savings or return on investment. Our approach was to purchase a full-function card system and add the services, looking for payback to follow later, as was the case with the student service center. In hindsight, our one-card investment has been well worth the risk, allowing us to offer a rich variety of services and convenience to students, appropriately balanced by security concerns.

Service Before Revenue

While it is common for larger institutions to generate returns quickly from a campus card system, our primary goal at Stevens from the start was enhanced student services. In some instances, we’ve even decided to delay potential revenue from fees to encourage greater use of the card. As a result, we’ve expanded our one-card system beyond traditional uses. In addition to student identification, dining, vending, laundry, printing, and door entry, the Stevens system can be used for debit transactions at more than 25 off-campus locations, including supermarkets, pharmacies, and restaurants. Student organizations can also accept debit transactions at campus events using wireless handheld readers.

Our robust off-campus merchant program and the ability to use the card system in ways that minimize staff involvement while maximizing services have resulted in a cost-effective, customer-oriented model. That cost-effective focus is evident in many of our implementation decisions. Stevens has an extensive campus network. All buildings are connected to the fiber optic cable backbone. However, our copper (telephone) cable was in poor condition in many of the locations where we planned to provide card services. Most notable was in the residence halls, where laundry and keyless entry were essential and where the copper cable was virtually fully utilized with no growth potential. Because we wanted to leverage our campus network without having to install or maintain a cable infrastructure for our card systems, we incorporated Internet protocol converters that allowed us to plug directly into our existing network. This approach of taking advantage of our campus network allows growth with virtually no additional labor costs and no required inter-building cable installation or maintenance.

Adding Value Day or Night

Because there is an institutional cost for allowing cardholders to add value to their cards and to administer the program, if we were losing money on transactions, an increase in usage would be of no value to us other than increased customer satisfaction. In our case, our outsourced off-campus merchant program generates sufficient commission revenue from merchant transaction fees to cover these service costs. One important concern for keeping service costs low is to set up a cost-effective approach for cardholders to add value and get transaction information (statements) in a way that the processing costs do not exceed revenues generated. A key feature of the Stevens one-card program is 24-hour debit card replenishment with minimal administration costs through use of an online card office.

There are essentially three ways to add value to a card. The most cost-effective approach  is the online card office, since this involves no labor. The system we use maintains value on a central system rather than stored on the actual card. This is similar to a checking account debit card where value is held on the bank’s system. With this method, cardholders do not have to present the card to a device to add value. Because the Stevens online card office accepts only credit cards, there is a processing cost for the credit card transaction. Since we outsource our online card office, this transaction fee is paid to that vendor. It’s also possible to accept automated clearinghouse checks or debit cards. In those instances, the transaction processing fee is usually a bit less.

All Stevens cardholders have access via the Internet to the online card office. Online card office authentication presents an important consideration. The first vendor we used required a special account set up by the student. This meant an extra step, and users often forgot their passwords. Our current vendor allows us to authenticate via our centralized password authentication service so that cardholders may use their Stevens user name and portal (single sign on) password.

A second way to add value is with a cash-to-card service. Stevens has a value transfer station  available in our library that we provide as a service. Those who want to use cash to add value to their card may do so using the VTS, which is used mostly by students or guests who need to make copies or print. (The VTS dispenses guest cards for library visitors who may wish to make copies.) Requests have been made to add a second VTS in our administrative building, open daily 24 hours, which is where most on-campus dining facilities are located. While a VTS can certainly enhance card use, it’s important to bear in mind that offering a 24-hour cash-to-card service is not necessarily a source of revenue for an institution and should be considered foremost as a service.

A third method for adding value is in person. Students may request that additional funds be placed on their card in person or via their Stevens e-mail. The student’s bursar balance must be below a set amount before this request is granted. We also allow departments to add value via a funds transfer processed by the office of residence life. Specifically, we issue a limited number of cards to be used by academic and administrative departments (not individuals) for which debit dollars are added as a transfer of funds via the financial system. One example of department use is for the admissions office, which employs student tour guides. The department can use its card to purchase lunch or a snack for visiting students and families. Because of the labor involved to process transactions, the in-person method is potentially the most costly.

Online Ease of Mind

One essential feature of our online card office is the ability to suspend a card. Since the card can be used for 24-hour door access and merchants are open outside traditional business hours, we required an easy way for the cardholder to prevent use of the card if it is lost or stolen. Cardholders can, in real time, prevent their card from being used by logging on to the online card office and clicking on the “missing card option” to deactivate the card or, if they find their card, clicking on the option to activate the card. The ease of authentication and the ability to deactivate or reactivate a card are key features that require no special staff training or operating resources and that provide a financial and safety benefit for cardholders.

Other convenience factors apply to offering an online card office. Cardholders can grant online card office access to a third party such as a family member to view their account or to add value. They can also set up a low-balance e-mail warning message sent to them or to a third party as a reminder to add value. This feature is popular and promotes increased use of the card, ultimately generating higher revenue. Cardholders control this feature and can turn the warning messages on or off.

Yet another significant plus to using an online card office is that it provides cardholders with complete real-time transaction information and access to prior statements, making mailed and paper statements unnecessary. That alone represents institutional savings, since mailing statements to cardholders is costly, even if done via campus mail.

Meal Plan Versus Merchants

Declining balance and meal plans are important options for a card system. For instance, by offering a declining balance meal plan based on a currency rather then a number of meals, a student uses declining balance dollars to pay a cash equivalency out of a debit account. However, when purchasing a card system, institutions often focus on the flexibility of meal plans and declining balances based on an on-campus dining model. In most institutions, this may reapportion the pie, but the money still ends up with the institution’s dining services vendor or in-house dining services. For many students, our previous declining balance restriction allowed students to use their money only to eat at on-campus facilities. Options were very limited, with one dining hall, a coffee kiosk, and a snack food location on campus.

Our goal was to improve dining services without having to micromanage a vendor or take dining back in-house. Our solution: Add value and variety to our meal plan by allowing students to use their declining balance at off-campus restaurants. Because Stevens is a small university in a town that does not directly depend on us, merchant program vendors initially told us it was unlikely that Stevens could sign up merchants. We thought differently and did not let the big-town-versus-small-institution model deter us. For instance, we know that some of our residence halls are closer to the main merchant street in Hoboken than to our dining halls and that students often take the short walk to “the avenue” rather than dine on campus. Ultimately, we were able to convince an off-campus merchant company to partner with us as an experiment.

Because our resources were limited and we did not have expertise selling an off-campus merchant program, we were willing to forgo potential revenue in the early years to engage merchants. As long as we covered our costs, we saw enhanced services to students as our primary goal. Another main objective beyond providing more off-campus options for students was to introduce a competitive, improved dining environment on campus.

When we moved ahead with our off-campus merchant program, our dining vendor did lose considerable declining balance revenue the first semester. In many respects, this was a risky move for us and did cause some concern. Because our dining services contract was up for renewal, the potential loss of revenue to our dining vendor from off-campus competition meant it was possible that Stevens would be viewed as too small for dining vendors to invest in. We also knew that we did not want to bring dining in-house if our dining vendor pulled out. Fortunately, our vendor viewed the situation as an opportunity to learn how to attract more business by improving food quality, increasing hours of operation, enhancing facilities, and offering more interesting menus.

Our off-campus merchant program is now a huge success. We’ve added more than 25 off-campus dining options—without adding property or expense. Nearly two-thirds of the dining declining balance money is now spent off campus, and our dining vendor has been able to recover most of the initial loss due to additional deposits overall that are continuing an upward trend. In spring of 2005, declining balance deposits grew by 9 percent over the previous spring, and by spring of 2006 had grown 19 percent over that. Both on-campus dining and off-campus merchants are experiencing growth in revenue by increased deposits into the program. In addition to students and family members adding value to the cards, employees are likewise taking advantage of the program.

 Building Success Into Card Programs


Campus card programs can yield a favorable return, whether through new revenue streams, cost savings from automating manual processes, or improved service to the campus community. Card systems are enhancing a growing number of campus operations, but like other important systems, they require thoughtful consideration. Chief business officers must maintain a general awareness about key factors that may influence program success and affect decisions about system implementation.

Total cost of ownership. The cost of a campus card program goes well beyond the initial purchase of equipment and software. Other cost factors include properly trained employees to support the program; networking facilities and infrastructure space; and ongoing maintenance expenses to the vendor and others on campus that support the program.

Coordination of services. A comprehensive card program involves many other campus functions and systems. Most often, these include an institution’s information and financial systems but they may also include interaction with the institution’s physical plant and public safety program. Because a card program may eventually interact with all major functions on campus, it’s important to select someone at the implementation stage who will serve as the card program liaison to all groups on and off campus.

Card production. In an age of identity theft and identity creation (where an individual in possession of a fraudulently obtained card can gain access to other necessary documents to create an identity), producing cards for campus constituents is no longer a casual matter. Whether the cards are being issued to students, faculty, or staff, the process requires careful attention to collecting necessary background documentation for each individual. Likewise, institutions must become more vigilant with verifying the active status of students and staff. Card systems need to be properly synced with student information and human resources systems to provide updated data.

Part of protecting identity is ensuring that lost or stolen campus cards can be reported and deactivated quickly and a new card obtained. Since most campuses do not operate 24-hour card offices, institution leaders must think through how to accommodate this important process. One solution for many campuses has been to train and equip the campus public safety office to become the point of contact during nonbusiness hours. These same personnel can be authorized to produce temporary replacement cards.

Merchant relationships. Any card program must provide established operating procedures and agreements worked out in advance with merchants, whether they are institution-affiliated, on-campus third-party, or off-campus. Institutions must establish clear channels for airing complaints and methods of resolving disputes for participating merchants and card customers. Another policy consideration is agreement regarding frequency of payment. While most colleges and universities operate on monthly vouchers and payment schedules, many off-campus merchants represent smaller enterprises that would prefer daily payment and may require weekly payment. Managing merchant relationships may also entail a policy regarding when and on what grounds to eliminate a merchant from program participation.

Online access. An important trend in campus card programs is the ability to easily add value to a card account online. Students and their parents are coming to expect the convenience and immediacy of Web-based transactions.

Access control. While the installation of card readers to permit access to residence halls, academic buildings, and recreation centers is a growing trend on campuses, institutions must follow through with necessary maintenance and security measures to ensure that doors are truly locked when they are supposed to be locked and that propped doors can be detected. It is incumbent on an institution to incorporate the required wiring, monitoring procedures, and staffing to ensure genuine control over electronic access.

Successful card programs start with a positive experience. While institutions may feel the need to begin their card program with access control, this can set a negative tone that may be hard to overcome—particularly if controlling access to residence areas separates male and female students. Leaders of institutions that don’t already have an established card program should consider incorporating positive uses of the card that provide added service and convenience for the campus community in concert with access control features.

LOWELL ADKINS is executive director, National Association of Campus Card Users, Phoenix.

Duck Bills Accepted Here

In addition to off-campus dining merchants, Stevens also accepts card debit transactions in numerous nondining locations on campus. Because all card funds are combined in one “bucket,” cardholders do not have to allocate funds to a specific purpose such as dining. At Stevens, we affectionately refer to this debit value as “Duck Bills,” since our university mascot is a duck. To promote one-card use, we inform cardholders of the various on- and off-campus locations that accept Duck Bills. We do so in several ways: marketing flyers distributed throughout campus, print advertisements in the student newspaper, and information on our Web site ( In addition, all sales locations on and off campus are branded with “Duck Bills Accepted Here” signage.

Since all on-campus locations have a virtual direct connection via the campus network to the system, no transaction fees are paid to a third party. The campus store cash registers link directly with the card system. In other on-campus locations such as the computer service center, theater, and library, a reasonably priced card reader is used. Typically, wherever card access is offered, usage goes up. This has even been the case for the university’s student government movie club that shows films weekly during the academic year. The group charges a minimal entry fee and sells concessions. When the movie club purchased a cash register that accepts Duck Bills, sales and attendance increased by 16 percent. During the first year, 35 percent of sales were conducted using Duck Bills. That portion grew to 59 percent this past year.

Shortly after going live with the one-card system, we built a portable activity reader that can be used anywhere on the campus network to validate event admission or allow Duck Bill payments. The card reader was soon popular with student organizations that run events at which they must validate a student’s enrollment and perhaps charge a fee. The only limiting factor was that a wired network port and electricity were required to use the reader. Since the Stevens wireless network covers virtually the entire campus, we purchased several handheld wireless activity readers. Usage has become so ubiquitous at events that students expect to pay using their Duck Bills. Since Stevens does not charge student organizations a transaction fee, we do operate this service at a financial loss, but what we continue to gain—student satisfaction—is far more valuable than what we’ve given up.

Are You Sure You Want to Print?

One area where Stevens has implemented a charge-back process is on copying and printing services. Like many institutions, we were experiencing an exponential increase in printing-related costs. Previously Stevens did not charge for computer printing, and the costs were starting to run more than $5 per year per student for paper and supplies alone, not counting the labor involved in printing and distributing the output and the capital cost of the printers. We likewise had noticed an incredible amount of waste. Students would print something and never pick up the output. Much labor went into placing output into alphabetic bins and later reviewing the bins to recycle output that was never picked up. Because anyone could pick up output from the bins, students often complained that they had printed something and it was missing.

The purchase of hardware and software licenses for our printing solution has paid for itself in two years and has had the largest positive, immediate financial impact of our card system operations. Not only are we realizing revenue, but we also have the opportunity for cost savings. Having a revenue source allows us to upgrade printers and add printing locations. We now have printing kiosks in the library and administrative building and offer color laser printing. There is virtually no waste or labor costs, as the system is fully self-service. Simply put, users send output to the print queue from the Internet and assign a password to their print job. They then proceed to the “release station,” swipe their identification card, and enter the password they assigned to the print job. Once they swipe their card, a per-page charge is deducted from their balance. In this way, security is also maintained because the printed output carries an assigned password and the user immediately removes the output from the printer. Queued output not printed within 24 hours is automatically removed from the queue.

No More Quarters

Getting rid of dirty laundry is a lot easier these days for students at Stevens. Like most institutions, our on-campus laundry services were coin-operated washers and dryers. Making the transition to card-operated laundry was much easier in our case since our current laundry vendor already had experience with the card system we purchased—the same used by a nearby university. They also were in favor of migrating to card-operated machines because they knew that card systems tend to increase usage and allow for better-maintained machines. Stevens purchased the card swipe and authorization hardware, and our laundry vendor provided all new washers and dryers with the electronic components to work with our card system. Student use of our laundry services has since increased by 35 percent.

We also recently licensed and are implementing Blackboard’s Universal System, which supports a more flexible hardware environment. Eventually, by checking a Web site, a student will be able to see whether washers and dryers are free in the laundry rooms and will be notified when a wash or dry cycle is complete. Likewise, the vendor will be able to monitor machine status and know immediately when a machine is broken or not performing correctly.

Open Door Policies

Card-access door systems require a considerable investment in door hardware, card system electronics (if online), and wiring. Depending on the location and complexity of a door, labor costs for installation can be high. On the other hand, not having to change cylinders when keys are lost or when students leave at the end of a semester can make the investment worthwhile. Stevens recently completed a new center for technology management that includes 15 classrooms and faculty offices. Entrance to the building, all classrooms, and the floor with faculty offices is controlled by card access. Campus security personnel do not have to physically open the building or unlock classrooms since our system is programmed for the times when doors should be in an unlocked state.

Conversation Starter
What key feature or enhancement is your campus thinking of adding to its one-card system? E-mail

One area where we believe Stevens is breaking ground is with card access to student residences. For one new hall currently under construction, students will not need a key to enter their building, suite, or room. Since key distribution and return will be unnecessary, students who reside in this hall can go to their rooms immediately upon arrival on campus. Likewise, they will be locked out at the end of a semester on their scheduled checkout date. Because an interface file from the student system will authorize student access to residence halls, no manual intervention will be required. This new system will deter lost cards and prevent key duplication.

Stevens also provides card access to team lockers, fitness rooms, and our gym based on access lists maintained by the athletic department. During the next fiscal year, we anticipate replacing our two remaining legacy door access systems with our central online system. All this entails close cooperation with the campus lock shop. While the physical plant department lock shop is responsible for all mechanical hardware, it also assists in all aspects of installation and troubleshooting. Although a physical key may no longer be distributed, the physical plant key control manager still has access to the system and can grant door access privileges.

Taking Stock

The average funds held in Stevens’s debit account have doubled during the past two years. The revenue we generate from cash management and merchant fees offsets our cost of credit card transaction charges. For the variety of services we provide, Stevens still has fewer than two full-time equivalent employees dedicated to the card program, including a full-time card system administrator and two part-time support staff. Management of our card system is a cooperative arrangement between the dean of residence life and the chief information officer—a partnership that keeps our focus on efficient, high-quality services for students.

While a well-managed card system that takes full advantage of available technology can require a substantial initial investment, the financial and customer benefits can pay off handsomely in the long run. In our case, that investment was well worth the resulting efficiency, convenience, and satisfaction.

ERIC ROSENBERG is associate vice president for technology and information services for Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey.TRINA BALLANTYNE is dean of residence life.