During the dark ages of student identification cards at the University at Albany – that would be before 1996 – a typical student needed a student ID card and meal plan card, plus a card to pay for library photocopies, a wad of downtown bus tickets, a dormitory door key, change for laundry and cash for meals in the Campus Center.
Behold: the smart student ID. A single, self-contained piece of plastic that pays for everything: meals, copies, CDTA bus rides, laundry, junk food. The swipe card lets the student into the dormitory – rooms themselves still take keys – and can even be used to pay college parking tickets. Here and around the country, debit card technology has made it possible for students to never carry cash, on or off campus, provided they limit their off-campus gastrointestinal intake to pizza, Chinese food and wings.
“It was just simply more convenient to carry one card instead of many cards,” said Julia Filippone, executive director of University Auxiliary Services, a university-owned corporation that contracts with food services and other outside businesses.
The revolution, at least at UAlbany, began in 1996 when the campus combined a meal card and an ID card into one unit. This later morphed into an even more complex debit card. Now, in addition to the meal plan for residents, students can put money into a special account known as “Munch Money,” which allows for the purchase of food at Campus Center eateries like Burger King and Pizza Hut.
And, for the first time this semester, the school also offers OffPodium, an account that allows students to order food from half-a-dozen off-campus restaurants, including Mild Wally’s and Dragon City Chinese Restaurant.
“It’s the elimination of cash,” said Brian Kovelman, owner of Mild Wally’s. Only a small percentage of students use the ID for off-campus purchases, Kovelman said. Yet when an electrical surge Friday took out the $300 credit card-type swiping machine used to check the student IDs, the loss for the weekend hurt his business, he said.
“It’s a small percentage now,” he said. “But it’s going to grow.”
While come campus businesses say they occasionally see stolen cards being used, the photo on the ID helps to discourage it. Cashiers at Cee Cee’s, a convenience store, are told to take away any IDs that obviously don’t belong to the student.
“It’s pretty common at the end of the semester,” said Retail Manager Brooks Friedman, “when everyone’s running out of money.”
Around the region, more and more colleges are turning to these smart cards. At Union, students can use their IDs at the Van Dyck restaurant and at the Ambition Cafe, although students cannot buy beer with them. Union College pays the student’s bills and then charges the student.
At Skidmore, the card serves more as a debit card, and only on campus. Siena, Saint Rose and Sage colleges also offer on-campus use but are looking into off-campus applications in the future, officials said.
“It’s growing every year,” said Mark Reinart, manager of marketing and business development at Diebold Inc., a company from North Canton, Ohio, that specializes in security systems and ID cards.
Diebold, a 140-year-old company with 13,000 employees worldwide, began selling equipment to colleges 30 years ago. Today, it counts more than 400 higher education institutions as customers.
The smart card revolution is so popular that there’s even a National Association of Campus Card Users. The Alabama-based group is holding a four-day conference in March in New Orleans with seminars like “Penn State ID+: What Worked, What Didn’t” and “Banks Are Great! But I Wouldn’t Want to Marry One …”
At UAlbany, students seem to like the idea.
“It’s a lot easier than carrying cash around,” said Eric Fisher, a freshman from Connecticut.
Alan Wechsler; Staff Writer