For Ron Chicken and other freshmen at Montclair State University, the new freedoms that presumably came with college age included a mandatory cell phone with which the school could pinpoint their whereabouts on or off campus.
“I think some didn’t like the idea that they had to have it, and some thought it was a new way to track them,” Chicken, 19, now preparing to enter his sophomore year at the New Jersey college.
But Chicken said that as time passed, students realized that the voluntary tracking system offered added safety and that the required phone had many useful functions.
“Most people have adjusted to it,” said Chicken, now a fan.
With nine out of 10 college students carrying cell phones — and many of them using traditional landline phones rarely or not at all — schools are seeking ways to maintain a line of communication while deploying technologies they believe students want and need.
Some colleges are abandoning the wires and phone jacks in their dormitories. Many of those systems, formerly a source of extra revenue for institutions, now operate at a loss.
As a replacement, some are introducing their own cellular services and handsets customized to connect students with campus services and information, while adding security and instructional tools.
The University of Cincinnati has begun a voluntary program offering all incoming freshmen a free mobile phone featuring the Bearcat mascot on the welcome screen, while Morrisville State College in New York has replaced landlines in its dorms with mandatory school-issued handsets.
Other colleges, however, are sticking with traditional phone service, worried that cellular may not be as reliable in an emergency.
“Communicating with students on a regular basis has become a challenge, and schools are looking for ways to address that issue as well as safety,” said Patricia Scott, a spokeswoman for ACUTA, an association of communications technology professionals in academia.
While the phone technology known as Voice over Internet Protocol poses another viable option with the spread of broadband access on campuses, some experts see folly in trying steer a wireless-minded generation of students toward anything but a cell phone.
Technology experts and educational groups say they haven’t quantified the number of schools replacing landlines with other technologies. ACUTA estimates that fewer than half the schools in North America have installed VoIP networks, but more are expected to do so in the future.
The University of Scranton in Pennsylvania plans to drop traditional landline service in its dorms this fall, but the school is not providing a wireless substitute.
“We considered issuing our own cell phone, but that would mean students could end up having two cell phones or having to discard their original one,” said Jerry DeSanto, Scranton’s chief information technology officer.
Initially, to help ensure a way to contact students who don’t always provide their cell numbers or even local addresses to the school, Scranton considered requiring students to enter such information at the school’s Web site before they could access certain services. The school has backed away from that requirement since it would be difficult to determine which students don’t actually have a cell. Instead, it is creating a network splash page that will urge them to provide the information.
The cell phone program at Montclair was spurred partly by the decline in revenue once reaped from providing long-distance service to students, as well as by requests from the university’s student life department.
Class schedules, food specials
Montclair surveyed students to determine what capabilities they’d want, then partnered with Rave Wireless Inc. to develop those software applications for cell phones. The handsets and wireless coverage are provided through Sprint Nextel Corp.
Students can use the phones to get real-time alerts and information from the university, check class assignments, learn about specials at campus restaurants, or track the location of school shuttle buses through Global Positioning System technology. GPS also enables the tracking feature that initially worried some students. Students can activate this “Guardian” service, launched earlier this year, if they ever feel threatened on campus.
“Police can track a student’s trip on a large screen in a bread-crumb sort of way until the student deactivates the service,” said Edward W. Chapel, who helped oversee the program before joining another college.
Montclair initially provided incoming freshmen living on campus with free phones and service for last year’s fall semester. In January, those students were required to pay for the service, starting at $186 per semester. The program is being expanded this coming semester to include the new crop of freshmen regardless of where they live, as well as sophomores living on campus. Students can pay extra for higher-end phones and plans.
Under the University Cincinnati program, operated in partnership with Cincinnati Bell Inc., freshmen are offered a free Nokia phone but pay for the voice and data services they select. They also can buy trendier thin phones like Motorola Inc.’s Razr for $170 or an I-Mate “smart phone” with keyboard for $519. The phones also provide access to academic and campus information, as well as a help button to contact emergency services.
“The landline probably will be obsolete in five years or so, and we want to be in the forefront of new technology,” said Frederick Siff, UC’s chief information officer. “Students don’t carry laptops around constantly, but they always have their cell phones.”
UC sophomore Chris Weiser, 20, of Dayton said the plan sounds worthwhile but wants more details. “I’m not sure how many will want to pay extra for the smart phone,” he said.
Morrisville State set up its program with Nextel Partners Inc., which improved the spotty wireless coverage on campus as part of the deal. Students pay for a cell phone and service that includes all incoming and local calling as part of their residence hall fees.
Eric Weil of Student Monitor, a marketing research firm, is not sure schools can compete from a pricing standpoint with the family plans many students have through their parents. Others may be locked into a contract, he added.
“I think some of these ideas will be met with limited interest by students and parents,” Weil said.
Meanwhile, some schools are worried about safety and possible lawsuits if students don’t have reliable landline service in their dorm rooms in case of emergency.
“While the money we pay for landlines in each room could be reinvested elsewhere, I don’t like the idea of depending solely on a few courtesy phones in hallways,” said Alex Konialian, telecommunications analyst for Towson University in Maryland.
Austin College in Sherman, Texas, also is keeping its landlines for safety reasons, but will no longer offer long distance or voice mail on them. Instead, it will rely mostly on e-mail to stay in contact with students.
Still, technology experts agree that many colleges are just now realizing the problems with older technologies.
“Even schools that are waiting and continuing to do what they have always done eventually will have to take the plunge,” said Siff.