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5 Steps to Mitigate Master Key Risks in Your Campus Housing

In 2022, property crimes on college campuses increased nearly 35%, highlighting the growing need for increased security measures. One of the most common practices in campus residence halls, which also happens to be one of the riskiest, is the use of master keys. When a key can open the door to any room in a building, keeping those keys out of the wrong hands is an important safety issue. It’s even more critical when students’ personal living spaces are involved.


As a campus housing professional, what can you do to protect these keys, giving students peace of mind and reassuring parents?

Start with the following five steps:

1. Secure Keys

Securing keys might seem like an obvious piece of advice, but there are a surprising number of residence halls that keep keys in a front-desk drawer or on a simple pegboard. While this practice gives you easy access to keys, it poses a significant security risk. Even hanging keys on a pegboard in a locked room is not foolproof, as someone can easily swipe a key.

When it comes to managing keys, strike a balance between security and convenience.

When it comes to managing keys, strike a balance between security and convenience. At minimum, secure keys in a lockbox. However, note that most lockboxes require a shared code or an additional key, which is still not entirely secure. The ideal solution is an electronic key control system that securely locks keys in a drawer or wall-mounted panel, automatically authenticating employees through a unique login method.

2. Keep Reliable Records

Residence halls have various personnel needing access to different areas, from full-time residence life employees to resident advisors (RAs) and campus law enforcement. Maintaining precise key control records — including key assignments, checkouts, and returns — is crucial for security. To minimize human error or manipulation, avoid relying on manual ID checks and log entries. By using technology to automate the key control process, you can automatically authenticate employees, record their access levels, and log key removals and returns.

3. Set Up User Access Levels

Assigning access levels based on responsibilities and roles is paramount. Staff members should only access keys relevant to their duties to prevent misuse. For example, RAs might have keys with time restrictions, maintaining accountability and preventing unauthorized access to resident rooms. Implementing a hierarchical key system and assigning access levels carefully will safeguard residents' security and privacy.

4. Quickly Detect Missing Keys

In campus housing, missing master keys create vulnerabilities that compromise students’ safety. Promptly locating keys is crucial to avoid unauthorized access to student rooms and rekeying costs — and that’s part of the reason it’s important to have secure key storage, reliable records, and user access controls. Without these measures, you might not even realize a key has gone missing until it’s too late.

If you manage keys with an electronic key control system, you can have the system send you a text or email alert when a key isn’t returned on time. You can then investigate the situation, starting with the employee who had the key checked out at the time of the alert.

Regular key audits are an indispensable component of an effective key management strategy.

In addition, regular key audits are an indispensable component of an effective key management strategy. These audits allow you to verify the physical whereabouts of all master keys. By identifying any discrepancies or unaccounted-for keys, you’ll reduce the risk of unauthorized access or negligence.

Having a clear, efficient protocol for dealing with lost master keys ensures you’re able to address potential security risks quickly.

5. Plan for Employee Turnover

Like many other industries, higher education has suffered from increased turnover and resignation rates. In a College and University Professional Association for Human Resources survey, 68% of full-time staff said they plan to look for other employment opportunities, up from 24% in 2021.


When employees leave, the remaining staff members spread themselves thin to fill in the gaps, making it easier for key control to fall through the cracks. To prevent turnover from becoming a security risk, managers must collect all keys, fobs, and access cards on the employee’s last day and revoke their access privileges.

During your routine key audits, ensure employees still have the appropriate access privileges. Using an electronic key control system makes this process easier through integrated, automatic reporting. In addition, user profiles make it easy to update a specific type of employee’s access to specific keys.

When new employees start, integrating key control best practices and security training into the onboarding process can help create a culture of security.

To increase security measures and protect students’ living spaces, properly managing master keys is crucial. The right key control procedures will balance convenience and security, automate records, enforce user access rules, find missing keys quickly, and simplify staff management. By adhering to these best practices, you can take action to provide students with the peace of mind they deserve.

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