The Online University Marketplace
E-transactions are becoming the norm for all sorts of campus activities—from ticketing football games to registration for campus ministry retreats.
WHEN THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA Crimson Tide took the national football championship in January 2010, it was the 13th such victory in the school’s history. But it represented a first for the university, as well—the first year the university got to test its e-commerce football ticketing system for a championship game.
The online ticketing system was born out of necessity two years earlier. With thousands of dedicated football fans attending the university, demand for tickets to Alabama home games generally outpaces ticket supply, especially as university enrollment has grown in recent years from 19,000 to 28,000 students. Paper tickets were increasingly expensive to manage and produce. In-demand tickets fetched a high price on the open market, which meant they were often resold. That left some students who wanted to attend games out in the proverbial cold.
So in 2007, the university began exploring a way to replace its paper ticketing system, with the aim of allowing as many students as possible to attend home football games while also leaving as few unused tickets as possible.
“The goal was to ensure as many students as possible have access to an important part of the student experience,” explains Jeanine Brooks, director of Action Card, the university’s identification and debit card program.
In a collaboration between university staff and student government, the school began a yearlong process of going ticketless for home football games, launching an online ticketing program called My Football Ticket.
“The transition was very orderly,” Brooks says. Since the university uses Blackboard, it decided to leverage the Blackboard Transact platform for its ticketing system. Using his university login information, a student pays for a ticket, and then the transaction is placed on the individual’s Action Card account the week before a home football game. The student then can enter the game with a mere scan of his ID card.
My Football Ticket also helps eliminate unused tickets by enabling online ticket transfers between students, and through a feature that lets students donate their tickets to an online ticket bank, which then allots the tickets to a waiting list.
The 2008 football season marked the system debut, and the impact was apparent from the first game. The usual queue of students waiting to get into the stadium had disappeared—the ticketless system allowed students to reach their seats quickly and efficiently. In its first year there were more than 130,000 visits to the My Football Ticket site, with more than 105,000 tickets issued, 15,000 online ticket transfers, and more than 3,500 donated tickets, according to the university. The time savings and convenience for students are tremendous, Brooks says, and have been one of the big benefits of the program so far.
But the big test came in the program’s second season— when the Crimson Tide rolled into the BCS National Championships in January 2010, and student demand exceeded available tickets. Beginning in December, students were able to put themselves on a waiting list via the My Football Ticket website; in the past, they would have had to register in person at the university athletic office.
As a measure of the program’s success, Brooks notes that whereas students may once have camped out and missed classes to get tickets to the championship game, ticketing is now fairer and more orderly. “It’s made the process better for customers—and that’s the students. That’s why we exist.”
Full Service Online
Seven years ago, Loyola University Maryland started offering an online tuition-payment service, and it was such a hit that parents and students pushed for other business to be handled via online transactions. In response, the student administrative services office teamed up with the technology services department to develop Campus Commerce— an e-commerce solution that handles almost all university departments’ transactional needs online.
According to Director of Student Administrative Services Michael Mansfield, Loyola decided to develop an in-house e-commerce engine using SiteExecutive Web, the school’s content management system. In-house web designers built customized online forms based on departmental requirements. The forms include capabilities such as managing inventory, calculating totals, coordinating with PayPal, and communicating information back to the university’s public website, so transactions can be confirmed by users.
The customization aspect means that forms can be created for any conceivable transaction, which has resulted in the system being widely adopted across a range of departments, including: athletics, which offers single-game and season ticket packages; advancement, which uses the system for managing alumni weekend, regional events, donations, and gift giving; and campus ministries, which employs it for retreat registration.
“We’ve had great success with it,” Mansfield reports. “I didn’t know how many people would be interested. It allows people to think about things differently.”
Mansfield realized how far the program had reached when the graduate program in pastoral counseling requested an e-commerce form for its commencement reception. Before Campus Commerce, a representative would have had to visit classrooms to notify students and collect payment in person.
“Now we just put up a page, e-mail students, they click on the link to pay for it, and boom, they’re done,” he notes.
For university employees, Campus Commerce has been a boon as well, lightening workloads and increasing efficiency. The administrative office receives daily reports of transactions and allocates revenues back to departments accordingly. Departments no longer have to sort mail and checks and send them to the financial office. The financial office, meanwhile, doesn’t have to worry about whether various departments have deposited checks, since funds are transferred online.
While the school’s technology services department fields a lot of requests for customized forms, Mansfield reports that there isn’t a concern about overwhelming tech staff at this point. Work-study students build the web pages, which can usually be constructed and deployed within three days.
Ideally, the next step for Loyola will be to integrate its e-commerce system with its Datatel ERP system, which would completely eliminate any burden on the back office, Mansfield says. To do so will be a matter of finding the financial resources to build an interface.
Adopting e-commerce solutions has meant that Loyola can offer better service to students, who want to conduct transactions on a self-service basis just as they would through any online marketplace, says Mansfield. And that, he adds, is just where universities are heading—students have come to expect colleges and universities to offer the same online payment capabilities as sites such as Amazon and eBay.
“In my 10 years at the school, this is one of the better enhancements we’ve introduced on campus that’s been able to affect a lot of people,” he says. “We can market and provide services in the way people expect.”
Sara Stroud is a freelance writer based in Oakland, CA.