Establishing a Successful Smart Card Program

A smart card is a palm-size card that contains a microchip that handles multiple functions and applications. Essentially it’s a minicomputer that can be used for a host of applications. Numerous colleges and universities are using smart cards -- pocket-sized wonders that they are -- to help them manage the services that are provided to students, faculty and staff.

Like any effort, successful smart card programs must be based on a thorough evaluation of current and projected requirements for multiple components that will be affected by the card’s use, including personnel, technology and building infrastructure, service providers and the users themselves. The cost of the card is also a key consideration. Compared to a magnetic strip card, which costs about $1 but will not store information, smart cards may cost approximately $3 to $7 per card and may even run as high as $30.

While the costs may be higher, however, the benefits, and the effect on the bottom line, can be significant. A comprehensive approach that includes a detailed plan for the present and future, support from the highest levels of a college’s or university’s administration and extensive user input are key ingredients to running a successful smart card program.

Laying the Groundwork

Both short- and long-term goals for the use of smart cards must be established, according to Bill Norwood, vice chair of Tallahassee, Fla.-based Cybermark, a national provider of smart cards. “It’s imperative to chart where you want the program to go and to thoroughly evaluate both current card use and potential future applications,” he says.

Norwood notes that administrators who approach smart cards from a money-making angle are starting off on the wrong foot: “Smart cards can positively impact the bottom line. However, it’s more appropriate to look at services, user convenience, personnel implications and other issues rather than saying, ‘I want this to make money for me.’”

The evaluation and implementation process involves four critical steps, according to Norwood.

1. Define the goals. Those involved with administering the program must understand up front the program’s short- and long-term goals. Is a program being implemented to expand or provide services, make money or both?

2. Who runs the program? The authority for running the program must be established and should lie with an entity that has a broad view of all of the card’s possibilities. Food service, for example, will have a targeted view, while business services will have a more global approach. Limiting targeted views will help to ensure broader buy-in for the card’s acceptance and will also reduce potential political conflicts.

3. Evaluate continually. Smart card programs must be continually evaluated based on financial, operations and user and service provider perspectives. Is the card saving or making money? Are there new ways the card can be used? When must service contracts be renewed? Will new buildings accommodate the use of the card to meet security requirements?

4. Market the card and keep marketing. Market, market, market. By maximizing the card’s use both on- and off-campus, administrators can make life easier for all users while establishing relationships that can benefit the bottom line.

The Florida State Story

“The smart card is the best administrative tool that I’ve come in contact with during the last 34 years,” says John Carnaghi, senior vice president for finance and administration at Florida State University (FSU). “We have and are using smart cards to help resolve a host of administrative problems. The use and the reception of the card have been everything that we envisioned and more.”

FSU’s smart card program was started because the university’s president at that time wanted one card that would do everything. In the early 1990s, a committee involving administrators, faculty, staff, students and service providers was established to help develop a comprehensive program for the card’s use. This group identified numerous possibilities for using the card both on and off campus, many of which have become reality. The FSU smart card is used for building access, vending, laundry, sporting event tickets, football concessions, long-distance telephone services and student voting and can be used with numerous private businesses.

One of the greatest benefits, according to Carnaghi, has been financial aid: “We used to hire at least nine additional staff members to help us handle the preparation and dissemination of financial aid checks at the beginning of each semester. With the smart card, Sun Trust Bank handles the distribution of approximately $90 million in financial aid to 80 percent of our students. Accounts are set up with the bank, money deposited and then withdrawn by the student as needed using the smart card. The arrangement, for which we just signed a second five-year contract, has saved us both time and money on the administrative side. Equally important, our students no longer have to wait in line for hours to pick up their financial aid checks. Sun Trust Bank benefits because many of the students maintain accounts after they graduate -- accounts that might have been originally established with other financial institutions if not for FSU’s financial aid administrative arrangement with Sun Trust.

“The FSU smart card is our number-one problem solver,” Carnaghi adds. “When we have an administrative or operations issue, we ask if it can be solved using the card. We know it’s working because our students tell their friends at other institutions about the card, and they, in turn, tell their administrators about the benefits that we’ve achieved. We frequently get calls about our program, which is very rewarding.”

FSU works diligently to ensure that new students understand the card and its many uses and then also works with users continually to evaluate the use and benefits of the card. “New students must go through a one- to two-day orientation when they enter the university,” says Dianna Norwood, FSU’s director of the card application technology center.

Norwood says that FSU no longer has a steering committee to guide the smart card program because students, faculty and staff are continually coming to the center with new ideas or concerns regarding the card’s use. “Most of our meetings involve at least several individuals who can respond to how the card is working. Because of this, we have constant feedback regarding how we are doing,” she says. “This, coupled with the goals that were originally established and refined as needed, enables us to run a smooth program that makes good business sense.”