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Should a tiger change its stripe?

Examining the role of mag stripes on the modern college campus

Andrew Hudson   ||   Jul 24, 2014  ||   ,

The contemporary college campus is a bastion of new technology, serving a student population that thrives on the bleeding edge of technology. This premise holds true for campus cards as well, with the number of universities adopting advanced card technologies growing at a rapid rate.

Still, flip over virtually any student ID and you’ll still find a mag stripe. While it’s exciting to see where card technology is going, sometimes it’s worth it to step back and appreciate the path from whence we came.

ColorID’s corporate marketing manager, Mark Degan offered his insights into the world of the mag stripe, detailing how the old guard of ID cards is still essential on campus today.

Picking a stripe

Mag stripes have adorned campus ID cards for decades, and the technology has evolved a bit over time, particularly as it relates to its coercivity levels. Mag stripes generally come in two flavors, high coercivity (hico) or low coercivity (loco). Degan insists upon taking the high road.

Coercivity is measured in Oersteds, with a numerical value defining the mag stripe’s coercivity level. “The Oersted Rating refers to the amount of power you need to push through a mag head reader so that you can successfully write data onto the magnetic metal stripe,” explains Degan. “It’s also how much power you need to push through the mag head so that it will rewrite the data that’s already on the stripe.”

As Degan explains, the lower the Oersted rating – as with loco mag stripe cards – the easier it is for the data on that stripe to be wiped clean. “You see it a lot with hotel room keys, for example, where the card will un-encode or demagnetize when coming into contact with a cell phone,” he says.

“We still sell loco mag stripes to a small number of customers, but very few of these customers are in higher education,” he explains. “Many use loco mag stripes for hotel door keys or one-time card uses like gift cards or visitor passes.”

As Degan explains, loco cards are used because a university has either yet to upgrade their infrastructure, or they haven’t been informed on the benefits of spending a little more money to get a more reliable mag stripe.

A default hico mag stripe typically carries and Oersted rating of 2750, with some manufacturers offering a 4000 Oersted mag stripe. “The gold standard for universities, and the most popular, is the 2750,” says Degan.

Does it come in red?

Branding and color representation is how a university shows of pride in itself and its identity. A university’s colors can also be reflected in an optional colored mag stripe, though according to Degan, it’s a rare request.

“We don’t see a lot of colored mag stripes out there, but any color is possible as long as you’re willing to wait for the material to be made to your specifications,” says Degan. “We only stock navy blue, forest green, silver, red, gold and the standard black.”

Colored mag stripes generally perform exactly the same as the standard black mag stripe, however Degan says that in controlled testing environments, colored mag stripes have shown a slightly higher un-encoding rate and don’t read as consistently on older mag stripe modules.

Rest assured, however, that if you’re in the market for a colored stripe, this error rate is hardly noticeable in practice. “The average read rate error for black mag stripes is 1% and colored mag stripe is 3%, so both are extremely effective,” says Degan.

Tossing the ‘junk’ stripe

Some campus IDs still feature a thin, standalone stripe affectionately referred to as the junk stripe due to its propensity for facilitating junk food purchases at vending machines. Designed specifically to enable off-line transactions, this single track, high-coercivity stripe powered photocopy and vending transactions on campus for more than 30 years. “We still see them around, but the percentages are steadily dropping,” says Degan. “I think they’re dropping because universities are migrating to newer transaction solutions.”

This migration, as Degan explains, moves these transactions online so they no longer need the junk stripe. “A good portion of existing use cases are vending related, but we also still see print/copy functionality and laundry functions are in the mix as well,” he says. “More unique junk stripe implementations are enabling parking or transit transactions or making purchases at a campus cafeteria.”

The bottom line, however, is that there are vendors that are now offering more sophisticated transaction systems. “It’s rendered the junk stripe obsolete,” says Degan.

Made in the USA

There are several ways to get a mag stripe onto a card stock. According to Degan, the most popular and reliable is the “flush” method. This is done by rolling the mag stripe material onto the internal overlay layers and then building your card sheets with artwork sheets and final overlay.

Mag stripes can also be rolled on after the card has been produced. “This method is simple to do, but the mag stripe won’t last as long because it’s not built into the card stock and instead lays on the outside of the card,” says Degan.

Degan suggests that with mag stripes, the old adage holds true; you get what you pay for. It’s for this reason that ColorID works with domestic manufacturers.

“Manufacturing facilities in the states typically produce a higher quality than those cards you can find on the Internet from offshore manufacturers,” says Degan. “If cost is the customer’s only concern, then we can certainly get them a cheaper material, but along with that comes a shorter lifespan and lower overall quality.”

Laying tracks

The next consideration for a university deploying a mag stripe credential, is the whether to use two or three tracks within the stripe. The cost between a two-track mag and three-track mag is nominal, at fractions of a cent, so it’s really up to the university if they want the added flexibility of a third track, or if they value the space they’d save on the back by only using only two.

“The two-track mag stripe measures 5/16” wide and a three-track mag is ½” wide,” explains Degan. “Using only two-tracks may give a university a little more real estate on the back of the card, but the third track can be a valuable addition.”

The swipe

One of the primary issues with the mag stripe is durability. Swiping the card through a mag head reader is mandatory every time you want to use the credential.

By the mag stripe’s very nature, you have no choice but to inflict daily wear and tear. “With contactless smart cards, you never touch the card to a reader, so there’s not that same level of abrasion,” says Degan. “It’s hard with mag stripe because you have to swipe; you have to erode the card to make it work.”

By Degan’s estimation, the typical mag stripe on composite blend card stock should withstand the student’s stay on campus, four to six years. PVC cards, however, could self-destruct before the mag stripe does and often won’t last for a student’s duration on campus, he says.

Durability aside, the mag stripe has survived this long for a reason. It’s effective. “I don’t see the mag stripe going anywhere anytime soon,” says Degan. “It works; it’s a very good product for a number of applications.”

The latest advancements in campus ID cards, and the transaction systems they interact with, are exciting. And no pun intended, these solutions open the door to new functionality on the college campus. But the mag stripe has long served higher education, and despite its newer competition, will continue to do so for years to come.

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