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Cashless colleges: Student IDs turn into payment systems

Campus ID cards pay for laundry, movie discounts and even 'e-wieners'

By Dana Dratch

In the beginning, a "cashless" campus meant student IDs doubled as a meal ticket and maybe a debit card at the college bookstore.

Cashless campus
A University of North Carolina student pays fellow student Folabomi Oladosu for a snack and an energy drink with his UNC One Card.

Today, those student ID cards open doors to dorms and labs, earn discounts with local merchants, sub-in for loose change at vending and copy machines, and even help with the laundry.

Welcome to the cashless campus.

Colleges and universities have been using ID cards for a variety of uses, including financial transactions, since the early 1990s. As technology has evolved, however, so have card capabilities, leaving colleges with an ever-growing menu of options. (See related story, "3 must-ask questions about student ID cards.")

Some colleges are content with plain-vanilla uses; others have chosen to add a host of services, all of which students embrace. "You've got kids coming to campus who've been using cards and accounts since junior high," says Chris Corum, executive editor of CR80News.com, a publication that tracks ID card technologies relating to schools and institutional settings.

Fancy IDs add convenience, security
For students, the issue is convenience. "It saves a lot of hassle," says Marie Thorpe, a sophomore at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "I don't carry cash."

Schools believe it's more secure for students and campus workers. "It makes it safer for students, because they're not carrying cash," says Carolyn Elfland, associate vice chancellor for campus services at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "Nobody's walking around collecting cash, depositing cash, and probably getting robbed."

One card, many accounts
These days, one student ID card may be the passport to several financial accounts. Some of the possibilities include:

• Meal plan accounts. Plan dollars are stored on the cards and deducted every time the student eats in the cafeteria or related campus sites.
• School-based preloaded accounts. This works much the same as conventional preloaded debit cards, only the school holds the money, acting as the financial entity. Students and parents can put money on the card as needed via a website, campus kiosks or through the campus financial office. Many times, schools also use the accounts to deposit grant and loan money earmarked for living expenses. Students can use the money on campus and, in many cases, with a set group of off-campus merchants.
• Checking accounts. Some colleges have agreements with local banks to offer students free or low-fee checking accounts. Students' ID cards double as ATM or debit cards. In some cases, those debit cards will also carry a Visa or MasterCard logo, which lets students use them anywhere those cards are accepted. The money is debited from their bank accounts.

Plastic-savvy students say it's easy to go from one account to another, using one for meals, another to buy off-campus snacks, and a third to pay for printouts of that last-minute report. Each account "has different names," says Sylviane Elessie, a St. Mary's psychology major. "It's not confusing at all."

Gary Meszaros, the director of auxiliary services who oversees the Big Red Card at Western Kentucky University, agrees. "Kids learn right away after the first few days," he says.

Cards do laundry, call home for money
Student IDs have evolved beyond financial services. Recent student ID card innovations include:

Laundry: At some colleges, washers and dryers accept ID cards instead of or in addition to cash and coins. Some schools even subscribe to Web-based services that send students an e-mail when their laundry load is done or even allow students to check online to see if a favorite machine is free.

"If you live on the third floor, you don't want to walk all the way down there with your load and [discover] everything's already in use," says Elessie. It's convenient "knowing when my laundry's done," says Rachel Mendy, a St. Mary's sophomore. "Instead of walking all the way down to the laundry room, I can just check on my laptop."

E-wieners:  Ohio State University has added a new high-tech attraction -- wireless hot dog carts. Students can grab snacks on the way to class and pay for their e-wieners with their BuckIDs. "It's really convenient around campus," says junior Andy Koenig, a journalism major who works in Ohio State's campus card office.

Several schools, including the University of Alabama, Case Western Reserve University and Duke University, are using kiosks that allow students to custom order food and pay with a swipe of their ID cards, says Dan Gretz, senior director of marketing for Blackboard Inc., a company that supplies education enterprise technology and teams with 450 schools to integrate campus card services. Students can place orders hours or days in advance and specify that the food be ready at a specific time -- such as during a break between classes.

'Dad, send money' e-mail alerts: Many school-based and bank-based spending accounts offer automated balance notification. A student sets a limit and gets an e-mail when the balance drops below that point. Students can elect to have mom, dad or grandma get that e-mail, too.

Off-campus shopping: In many college towns, a number of local businesses accept the ID cards as cash, deducting purchase amounts from the student's school-based account. "It's a wonderful way to build a bridge between the community and the university," says Nirmal Palliyaguru, director of the ACCESS card office for Santa Clara University in northern California.

In exchange, merchants rebate a percentage of those ID dollars to the school. Typical amounts are between 2 percent and 8 percent, says Lowell Adkins, executive director of the National Association of Campus Card Users, a member group for colleges, universities and professionals who manage campus card programs. Those merchant fees are not always pure profit for schools, though. If a third-party company manages the college's card system, that company will usually take about half, says Gretz.

Discounts and deals: College IDs have long been good for student discounts, typically at places such as movie theaters, museums and attractions near the campus. These days, colleges and the companies that pair with them are offering better deals, often for a small fee.

One company, The Cbord Group Inc., which works with approximately 640 colleges to provide card services for 4.5 million students, offers a Student Advantage program. For $45 (which covers four years), students get discounts from local, national and online retailers. Deals can consist of anything from a free soft drink with a slice of pizza, to 10 percent off at Target.com -- the same deal the retailer offers to customers who carry its credit card.

Cbord is "pretty aggressive" about getting retailers to match their best deals for students, says Read Winkelman, Cbord's vice president of sales for colleges and universities.

Last spring, Koenig used his student card to get $35 Incubus tickets for $15. Discount programs give students some fun without draining their wallets, he says. At his school, an extra $9 per quarter also buys free metro bus service, he says. "It's easy if you're on campus and want to go to the mall."

See related story: "3 must-ask questions about student ID cards"

Published: May 13, 2008


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