Woman unlocking door with smart phone

Towards Touchless - Physical Access Control in Higher Education

The heightened importance of touchless access control has become a significant byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic. As preventing the spread of a global virus suddenly became top priority, campuses responded with more interest in form factors that both reduce contact and increase security.

Right now, higher education institutions are facing critical decisions in terms of physical access control systems, recognizing that a move to more modern, touchless options resolves the many vulnerabilities that magnetic stripe (mag stripe) and 125kHz proximity (prox) technologies are susceptible to. Once the access credential of choice for many colleges and universities, these options are proving that they are simply not secure enough, user-friendly enough, or convenient enough to meet the needs and expectations that both their security — and their students — currently demand.

Prox and mag stripe cards come complete with a host of potential security risks. Mag stripe cards are easily damaged, easily cloned and often lost. The same can be said for prox cards, although they are a bit more durable. Today’s generation of college students — accustomed to the seamless digital experience of the internet and smartphones — finds magnetic stripe cards to simply be archaic. Consequently, the higher education marketplace — and yes, in many ways, it is a marketplace as universities compete to attract applicants — now has many forward-thinking institutions adopting smart card credentials and other incremental technologies, all focusing on a path toward the inevitable mobile credential. It’s an intuitive and convenient option.

Forging a Migration Path to Mobile

Yet despite the growing migration to mobile, there are still many universities that continue to maintain aging systems. In a recent HID survey, higher education institutions indicated that 33.76 percent of on-campus card readers are more than six years old. They further revealed that 30.6 percent of controllers and 24 percent of software platforms that manage access control systems are also more than six years old. Forty-two percent of respondents said they experienced access control system malfunctions two to five times a year.

It’s clear that universities must chart a course toward a more secure, user-friendly approach to their access control solutions if they are to ensure a high level of security and offer a desirable student experience. For many, this will likely begin with a fuller embrace of next generation smart cards and multi-technology readers, with an ultimate goal of implementing mobile-based credentials for some or all of their campus population.

The progression from smart card credentials to mobile access is entirely predictable. Student expectations, as well as technology, are each trending in that direction, qualifying mobile credentials as the most logical end-goal for higher education institutions.

The beauty of mobile is that its capabilities extend well beyond physical access control and can be used to support multiple applications. These can encompass school notification apps, cafeteria transactions, cashless vending, library, printing, and on-campus transportation services. This serves to not only enhance the student experience, but also further close any security gaps. With the right reader infrastructure in place, universities gain the flexibility to choose a direction that makes sense for their campuses and overall security objectives.

What Do They Have to Lose?

Prox cards are often lost or misplaced by students. In the wrong hands, these cards can grant bad actors access to all kinds of places on campus, including residence halls. And replacing a student’s credential can take time. In fact, it may even take some time before a student even realizes they’ve lost their card. Not so with their mobile phones. Typically, when someone loses or misplaces their phone, they know very quickly and do everything possible to regain possession of the device. And, it only helps that most use some form of security feature to access their phone, such as a passcode or facial recognition.

What Do They Have to Gain?

From a management perspective, mobile credentials are efficient to deploy. Students typically download an app, either a university-branded mobile application or an app from a service provider. They then authenticate it using the same sign-on that they use to access other campus applications, such as checking grades, registering for classes, communicating with professors, receiving emails, etc. Once they’ve been authenticated through the app and accepted the terms and conditions, a digital credential is assigned on the device. Short-term credentials are also easy to assign for visitors. This is welcome news because, as a subscription-based service, mobile credentials can support higher education’s authentication needs while also reducing administrative overhead and the expense of issuing cards. The subscription model likewise shifts much of the access control costs from capital expense to operating expense, making such projects easier to fund and manage over time, while simultaneously easing the management and administration burden for security personnel.

Looking Ahead

You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that magnetic stripe and prox will, inevitably, be a thing of the past in the near future. All the technology trends and emerging evidence around user preference clearly point to mobile credentialing as the optimum solution of the future. There will, for many higher education institutions, be a time of transition when smart cards become the access credential of choice while biometrics, simultaneously, continue to grow in sophistication. It’s very likely that the expansion of on-board biometric applications will actually help drive the adoption of smart phones as the ultimate means of access control.

Biometric sensors are maturing with each new generation of mobile phones. They’ve evolved from having fingerprint sensors to now being equipped with full facial and iris recognition. So it only makes sense that, as fingerprint, facial recognition, and iris scans make mobile devices increasingly secure, phone-based biometrics in conjunction with access control will emerge as complementary technologies. The migration to smart cards, and eventually to mobile, represents a major shift in how higher education institutions are approaching access control. Each step forward is empowering security staff and administration to deliver a greater level of security for their students while also providing them with the level of convenience they’re increasingly coming to expect.

Want to learn more about security trends and best practices? Download the eBook, Physical Access Control in Higher Education: A Mosaic of Perspectives.