Credit: Matt Moore
Credit: James Provost


Today’s tech support may become tomorrow’s locksmith.

Student housing has been at the vanguard of catering to tech-savvy Gen Y, from iPod docks to free Wi-Fi to Wii rooms. But the latest trend addresses a novel approach to security, an oft-overlooked issue in the broader discussion of “tech amenities.”

Near field communications (NFC) technology—which allows students to gain access to their dorm rooms using only a downloadable app on their mobile phone—is starting to gain traction on campuses across the country.

A recent study by J Turner Research found that 84 percent of Millennials cite security as their most important community amenity. Yet a separate survey of college and university protection officials found that 44 percent were dissatisfied with the current access-control system on campus, according to Campus Safety magazine.

So it only makes sense that secure building access is a high priority for those responsible for putting a roof over Millennials’ heads. And NFC is getting a long look as one next-generation solution. Basically, once a user downloads the app, all that’s needed is a tap of the phone against a receiver to unlock doors.

Convenient and Safe

In August 2011, Arizona State University (ASU) partnered with Irvine, Calif.–based security technology firm HID Global to test the benefits of converting from traditional student housing key cards to NFC-enabled smart phones to gain entry into a residence hall. The motivation behind the pilot program was simple: While students often left their rooms without their key cards, or lost them altogether, they almost always made sure they had their mobile phone with them at all times.

NFC chips are embedded in students’ mobile phones and each student has a unique identification credential. According to the case study, nearly 79 percent of students said that using a mobile phone to unlock the door was as convenient as, or more convenient than, using traditional key cards.

“There’s always going to be a tug and pull between security and convenience,” says Debra Spitler, vice president of mobile access solutions for HID Global.

Beyond the wow factor of the technology, there are a few security advantages to using a smart phone for access control. For instance, using a phone as a key offers an extra layer of security that a key card or traditional key can’t. If the phone is lost, the NFC chip’s identity credential can be remotely disabled to prevent a would-be thief from gaining access to a student building. Plus, cell phones can be password-protected. “NFC is still very new, so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to build up an ecosystem,” Spitler says. “But the general consensus is that the more variety of applications that come out, and the more phones enabled with NFC technology that are developed, the more widespread NFC adoption will become.”

From Villanova to USF

More recently, Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies and Ithaca, N.Y.–based CBORD partnered with Villanova University to test a large NFC access-control pilot program and found that students who participated in the trial overwhelmingly gave the technology a thumbs up. More than 70 percent preferred using a smart phone to access dorms.

“We are seeing growing interest in NFC on college campuses,” says Cindy McCall, a vice president at CBORD. “Some schools are ready to start rolling it out now, but even those not ready to make the leap are planning for it when evaluating campus card systems, credentials, and readers.”

The latest adopter is the University of San Francisco (USF), which successfully completed the rollout of NFC building access and laundry payment technology in June. This program extends beyond just secure building access and takes advantage of the other increasingly popular feature of NFC chips: mobile payments.

While NFC may sound like an expensive proposition, USF believes it will slash security costs over time.

“As a rule, any new initiatives and investments need to meet one of three main criteria to be considered: increasing security, improving service, and ­reducing costs. NFC hits the trifecta,” says Jason Rossi, director of One Card and Campus Security Systems at USF. “We project it will reduce costs by reducing the number of lost cards, meaning we won’t have to carry as extensive an inventory of replacement smart cards.”

USF already used CBORD’s smart card products and brought in Ingersoll Rand for its NFC technology, the aptiQmobile app. Based on the initial deployment, the technology is gaining some serious traction with Millennials, and the university is looking to use it in other ways, too.

“We have found that once students are exposed to the value NFC brings to one area of their lives, they want to use it for as many applications as possible,” says McCall. “As awareness of NFC grows, and as more smart phones are released with native support for NFC, the expectation to use it throughout students’ daily lives will only grow [too].”

So as NFC access-control and other smart phone–based security measures gain more ground at campuses across the nation, students who become acclimated to the technology will come to expect the same convenience and security as they transition into off-campus housing. And just as with iPod docking stations and gaming rooms, this technology may evolve from a student housing phenomenon to a standard feature of the broader apartment industry.

Stay tuned.