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Community colleges making the move to advanced campus card technology

Expanded service delivery to students creates need for cards in this untapped market

By Andy Williams, Contributing Editor

Nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates haven’t had the same level of access to a campus card. That’s an untapped and underserved market that includes 11.5 million students. That’s how many attend community colleges, junior colleges and technical schools. These institutions have been far slower to embrace advanced campus card solutions, but this appears to be changing.

The student demographics at community colleges are different as are the infrastructure and service needs. In the past these differences lessened the perceived need for many card applications. Today, however, changes in the educational system landscape are bringing these campuses closer to their university counterparts.

Take housing for example. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, only about 25% of these institutions offer on-campus housing. Some mainstay card applications, such as dorm access control and laundry payments, center on housing environments. But these needs haven’t been felt at the majority of community colleges. Similarly, campus dining and meal plan needs have also been significantly less in these environments.

Other frequently cited reasons for the reduced use of campus cards by community colleges include more limited financial and staff resources, more dispersed geographic locations and lower student service expectations.

Whether these were legitimate reasons or not, the dramatic changes in the nature of today’s community colleges have overshadowed them. Today many community college campuses are indistinguishable from traditional college and university facilities. Community colleges are becoming the first choice for many students pursuing higher education and these students expect robust services and supportive systems.

“Our community college customer base is broad and diverse, as are the needs of each school,” says Randy Eckels, senior vice president, sales and marketing, for The CBORD Group. “Traditional applications such as dining, vending, bookstore purchases, and copying remain popular, but security is becoming more of a driving force as well, as is the case with four-year institutions.” This includes applications such as access control, alarm management and intelligent video.

However, community colleges do have special needs not found in other institutions. For example, as Eckels points out, their security solutions can be spread widely throughout the city or county. “Many do not have traditional campuses like other universities, and offer classes and services in buildings dispersed throughout cities or entire metropolitan areas. Reliable controls are needed to restrict access to students and college personnel,” says Eckels.

Blackboard has been actively working with community colleges for years. “We have established a solid base of community college clients and we expect rapid growth,” says Jeff Staples, vice president of marketing at the company. “The changing nature of the community colleges’ offering to their students is creating an opportunity for advanced campus card systems to assist in this segment of the higher education market.”

Heartland Payment Systems, which began serving colleges last year, and then widened its outreach with the purchase of campus card provider General Meters, now currently serves 16 two-year schools, says Fred Emery, vice president and general manager for Heartland Campus Solutions.

“A large portion of our installs this summer has been at technical institutions and community colleges,” says Emery. “While General Meters Corporation has always offered a card system, it wasn’t until five-years ago that systems like this gained traction among two-year schools. In the past 10 months we have added seven technical schools and community colleges to our roster of OneCard clients.”

Emery says community college requests have included a full range of products including ID production, access, dining, bookstore, vending, laser printing, copier, parking, web-based applications and even some off-campus programs.

Some campus card providers feel community colleges are a perfect fit for their software as a service (SaaS) model. While cards are still issued, most everything else is managed over a Web-based service run by the provider. This reduces the amount of infrastructure investment colleges have to make.

“Our service model is ideal for smaller and distributed organizations,” says Taran Lent of campus card provider CardSmith, Doylestown, Penn. “We have had unexpected (levels of) interest from both community colleges and private high schools.”

CardSmith began serving community colleges last year and currently has two as clients, providing them with traditional campus card needs, such as dining, bookstore and vending. “Off-campus is a big deal for community colleges that may have limited on campus offerings,” adds Lent.

CardSmith’s other services to the two colleges include a total campus card management service that covers card issuance technology, program marketing, off-campus management, and an outsourced customer call center, says Lent.

Ireland-based campus card provider SmartCentric’s customer base has been in universities rather than community colleges, says its CEO Kieran Timmons. “They typically did not have the budgets or resources required to implement SmartCity.” But that’s changing with its SaaS model, which makes it less expensive and less of a drain on resources. “We are currently talking to several community colleges about using the SmartCity SaaS model,” adds Timmins.

How big is the opportunity?

Community colleges offer a great opportunity for campus card providers to expand their client base. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,164 community colleges–987 public and 177 private–in the U.S. Add in branch campuses, and the total rises to 1,600.

Surprising to many, community colleges enroll nearly half (46%) of all undergraduates. That’s a lot of campuses, a lot of cardholders, and a lot of room to grow for a group of companies that have long battled each other for a finite number of potential clients.

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