Kathy Gallagher, director of university card systems at Villanova University, was out to dinner one rainy autumn night in 2012 when she received a telephone call from a priest on the staff of the Roman Catholic university. He had gone out to his car to retrieve something only to find himself locked out of a corridor leading to his dormitory room. Campus security was not immediately available.

Instead of prematurely abandoning her meal, Ms. Gallagher pulled out her iPad and opened the door remotely, thanks to a newly tested online system for building access. The next day, she visited the priest’s office to tutor him in a feature that gives employees and students access to given doors using their mobile devices.

Two years later, says Ms. Gallagher, “he loves it. He says to me, ‘Kathy, one thing I always have with me is my cellphone.’ ”

The changes under way at Villanova—it is now installing the online system in all of its residence halls in a multiyear approach—are emblematic of a technology-fueled shift in how colleges are investing in building access and security.

Spurred by a desire to better control who is moving in and out of campus facilities, colleges are adopting sophisticated online access systems at a steady clip. The systems, which support arrays of hard-wired and wireless locks, are being applied to interior doors, such as those in residence halls and labs, in addition to exterior doors. In some places they are being installed in concert with other security features, like video surveillance technology. The migration is such that traditional keys on college campuses could soon become as quaint as typewriters.

Companies competing in the market include the Cbord Group, Heartland Campus Solutions, and Salto Systems.

Online building-access systems deliver a certain “wow” factor. They allow administrators to monitor and control individual doors using a dedicated workstation or browser-based interface. User-friendly features include doors that can be unlocked by contactless “tap” cards and mobile devices.

Read Winkelman, vice president of sales at Cbord, says about 75 colleges and universities use at least one company product controlling access via a mobile device. “It is definitely accelerating,” he says.

The new access systems are also streamlining labor-intensive campus operations, including moving students between dorm rooms and accommodating temporary guests. “You are not handing out keys to summer-conference people who are here for just a few days and they lose the keys,” says Matthew Frericks, senior director for auxiliary planning and facilities at Miami University of Ohio, which put an online system into three dozen residence halls in 2011. “It is just like a hotel. At the end of their stay, that card is deactivated.”

Northeastern University was using traditional metal keys for about half its dorm rooms, with an offline access system—using swipe cards that communicate only with designated locks—for the rest three years ago, when officials there began looking into alternatives. This summer the university will install about 2,400 online locks in its residential facilities, in addition to 4,000 locks installed last year.

The new system allows students to unlock their doors with either cards or mobile devices. Students who do not own smartphones can still unlock their doors by texting “unlock mydoor” to a designated number.

“We do have about 1,000 students who have downloaded the app, and we would like to see that double or triple,” says Marina Macomber, assistant vice president for student and administrative services. “We think it is definitely meeting students where they are at in terms of using their smartphones for as much as they possibly can.”

Northeastern’s online system eliminates the hassle and the risk involved in issuing and collecting traditional room keys, Ms. Macomber says. And it eliminates the liability of a master key, the loss of which can require the rekeying of scores of doors. Resident advisers now can request temporary access in order to let a student into his or her room. A student moving to a new room can be granted temporary access to both the old and the new one.

Similarly, maintenance workers can be granted temporary access to complete work. A student is notified in real time by text message or email that someone will be entering the dorm room.

The cost of online systems varies widely, depending on scale and existing infrastructure. Installing hard-wired locks can run as much as $5,000 per door, according to security consultants. In some cases, existing doors can’t support wireless locks and have to be replaced.

Other Challenges

Some of the wireless locks can be unsightly, making them less appealing to institutions with historic buildings or distinct architecture, says Jeffrey Kernohan, a regional manager at Guidepost Solutions, a company that consults on campus security.

And the batteries for wireless locks have to be monitored and replaced, with heavily trafficked doors requiring the most attention.

Still, controlling access to specific facilities is a high priority. Online systems provide an extra layer of accountability at a time when campus safety is making national headlines.

Eliminating traditional locks means students no longer keep doors open by engaging deadbolts or other means, college officials say. Alarms and alerts are triggered if a door is ajar. Officials at Miami say dorm-room thefts have been “virtually nonexistent” since the locks were installed. Online systems also create a record of every entry and exit, data that can be used in the case of an emergency.

“If you know who is going into a dorm room and you have an emergency egress, you can print out a report and say these are all the people who were in our dorm, and we want to check them all in when they come out to their muster points,” says Mr. Kernohan.

Data generated by the new systems are treated like any other sensitive student and employee information, officials say. The information is accessible to just a few designated people and only for very specific purposes.

The technology used to control building access on campuses could move well beyond standard, credential-based systems. Mr. Kernohan says he sees some institutions with big-budget athletics departments investing in biometric systems, which use fingerprints or handprints to grant access to athletics facilities. Such systems are already widely used by professional sports franchises, he says.

Others say they expect such technology to be used only sparingly. What is clear, they agree, is that the days of the traditional lock and key are done.

“If you had asked me four years ago if my smartphone would have been able to open a door, I would have told you no,” says Villanova’s Ms. Gallagher. “Technology is changing, and it’s changing fast. If you ask me, Five years from now, what we are going to be doing?, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.”