Some UW-Stout students would prefer to buy own laptops
MENOMONIE, May 23, 2010 (The Leader-Telegram - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Freshmen enrolling at UW-Stout this fall can expect to pay at least $3,240 for mandatory university-issued laptop computers over their college careers.
By contrast, students enrolling at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill have the option of buying one of four university-recommended laptops for as little as $1,254 or opting to bring any laptop they'd like to campus as long as it meets a set of minimum standards.
Laptops are a prerequisite for all students at each school, and both programs include widely accessible on-site service and support, software, a warranty covering users' time in college and loaner machines when error messages make the originals inoperable. Though the required models are different, both programs offer powerful, business-class laptops that students keep upon graduation.
The dramatic price difference -- UNC students can spend less than 40 percent of that required of their UW-Stout counterparts to fulfill the obligations of their respective mandatory laptop programs -- illustrates the reason some UW-Stout students have questioned whether they're getting enough bang for their buck in the highly touted "e-Scholar" program at the Menomonie campus.
UW-Stout graduate student Adam Rittel, for instance, said he paid $4,619 in laptop fees for the 149 credits he took for his bachelor's degree in construction.
"I think I could have gotten a new laptop every year with the software I actually use and not paid this much," said Rittel, 22, who expects to receive his master's degree in risk control this month.
UW-Stout officials maintain the e-Scholar program, piloted in 1999 and made mandatory for the freshman class of 2002, is worth the cost. They point out the cost has been shrinking and the machines come with more than 50 installed software programs, valued at about $4,000, as well as technical support from the university.
Loading every laptop with the same leased software, including Autocad, Microsoft Office and various Adobe programs, allows students to investigate new software and to have access to necessary programs even if they change majors, said Sasha King, director of the e-Scholar program and telecommunications and networking.
Students sign an agreement that once they leave UW-Stout they will remove the software or license it themselves, with the exception of Office.
The system also encourages instructors to build the technology into their curriculum because they know students all have the full software package so requiring the use of a program won't add to their costs, added Jane Henderson, director of learning technology services.
Ultimately, UW-Stout administrators said, the protocol ensures that students and faculty have a standard set of tools -- both hardware and software -- that meets a majority of their computing needs, producing a wireless campus environment befitting the school's niche as Wisconsin's polytechnic university.
Software questions Rittel, however, said he would have preferred an optional policy in which he could buy his own laptop, in part because he never used any of the pre-loaded software other than the standard Microsoft Office and AutoCad, a computer-aided design program he said students can use for free anyway.
Junior Laura Johnson, 21, echoed that sentiment, saying she doesn't use much of the software because it's unnecessary for the classes she takes as a dietetics major. Thus, she doesn't think the benefits of the e-Scholar program are worth the cost -- to her.
However, UW-Stout officials argued, giving everyone the same software makes it easier to issue machines and keeps costs down by eliminating the need to alter software for students who change majors.
UNC, which made laptops mandatory for all entering students beginning in fall 2000, loads its machines with Office, Adobe Photoshop, Symantec Antivirus and a few other core programs and thus avoids students paying for software they don't need, said Priscilla Alden, executive director for user support and engagement with the Carolina Computing Initiative. Students then buy additional specific programs they need for classes, much as they do for textbooks, with the most expensive software selling for about $80.
"We do negotiate those licenses so we get incredibly good deals on those software programs," Alden said, citing an example of a high-level technical computing language program called MatLab with a list price of $1,500 that students can obtain through UNC for about $13.
Similarly, UNC uses its buying power to negotiate about a 40 percent discount on the laptops it sells to students, a deal taken advantage of by 90 percent of its 29,000 students. The laptops offered through the university for next academic year range in price from $1,254 to $2,024 -- still significantly more than the weekly special at the local electronics store.
"It really is a value to the students, and that's what we're all about. A lot of campuses kind of drool when they see what we've done," Alden said, noting the campus, like UW-Stout, also offers grants for students who can't afford the laptop program.
Doug Mell, executive director of communications and external relations at UW-Stout, said it's difficult to compare the e-Scholar program with the Carolina Computing Initiative because they are designed so differently.
One notable difference between the two programs is that the Wisconsin students receive a new computer in their freshman year and another new machine in their junior year. When students graduate, they take their computer with them and are guaranteed it will be no more than two years old, said Doug Wahl, UW-Stout's chief information officer.
UNC students, on the other hand, could have a four-year-old computer when they no longer are Tar Heels unless they choose to upgrade during their time on campus.
UW-Stout Chancellor Charles Sorensen emphasized that laptop fees don't just go toward buying computers but also pay for maintaining the entire digital campus.
"It's a learning tool," Sorensen said. "These young people are going out in the workplace fully prepared to use digital technology. We have a working lab of 8,000 computers on campus." The program works well because it provides a unique teaching and learning tool to everybody on campus, Mell said, adding, "It truly has become part of the DNA of UW-Stout." Requiring all of the university's more than 9,000 students to have a laptop creates a level playing field that doesn't handicap low-income students, especially considering the computer fee is part of tuition costs and thus goes into the calculation determining students' financial aid.
"There is no great divide in who has a computer," Sorensen said. "We all have them." Wahl agreed the cost to students is a good value.
"The biggest thing is when they leave UW-Stout they will leave knowing the tools they are going to need to work in industry," Wahl said.
Also, having a laptop allows students to work on their computers anywhere rather than having to go to computer labs.
"The entire campus is a lab," Wahl said. "They can work on the computers wherever they are." Of course, those advantages also are true in the cheaper program run by UNC.
Already wireless Another consideration for colleges considering a mandatory laptop program today, as wireless computing has become almost omnipresent among young people, is the potential redundancy and extra cost of requiring students to pay for a university laptop if they already own one.
In fact, that was a factor in the decision last year by the UW-Eau Claire College of Business to launch a mandatory laptop program that simply set minimum hardware standards instead of requiring students to buy or lease machines through the university.
A new national study involving 39 U.S. colleges showed that 88 percent of last fall's freshman already owned a laptop and that nearly 90 percent of those machines were one year old or newer. The research was conducted by the Boulder, Colo.-based Educause Center for Applied Research.
Johnson, the UW-Stout dietetics major, has her own laptop that she got as a high school graduation present in addition to her university-issued machine.
"I like that we are given laptops (at UW-Stout) but find it a pain because I have my own that I do not use during school, so it's a waste for me to have two laptops," Johnson said.
No other university in the UW System requires all students to use a laptop, although the Milwaukee School of Engineering has a similar program, and some branches of other UW campuses, such as UW-Eau Claire's College of Business, make laptops compulsory.
However, mandatory laptop programs have grown across the country as universities increasingly incorporate technology into the curriculum and seek to prepare their students for a digital world, said Ray Brown, director of institutional research for Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.
Brown, who has been tracking mandatory laptop programs nationwide for a decade, said his list now includes nearly 300 colleges, many of which impose the requirement only for certain departments.
Most universities on the list just require students to bring their own laptop that meets a minimum standard. Few colleges are willing to take on the responsibility, as UW-Stout has, of providing machines and technical support for all students, he said.
One reason more limited programs have grown, Brown speculated, is that many administrators no longer view a laptop requirement as a financial burden for students, both because prices have come down and the rate of ownership has gone up.
"Now most students are probably coming to campus with laptops anyway, so making it mandatory doesn't add a big extra expense for students and their families," he said.
Cost breakdown The computer platform provided to UW-Stout students is determined by university staff to meet the educational needs of particular academic programs. Most art and graphic communication management majors receive an Apple Macintosh laptop, while the other nearly 90 percent of students receive a PC.
At UW-Stout, the cost of the fall 2010 machine, including operating system software, is $960. Consumers would expect to pay about $1,629 for the same laptop and $189 more for the three-year accidental damage coverage at a retail store, Wahl said, noting that UW-Stout makes no profit on its laptop program. All revenue from laptop fees is rolled back into the program and supports the campus's wireless infrastructure and on-site service.
Beginning this fall UW-Stout students will pay $27 per credit, or $810 per year for an average load of 15 credits per semester, for the e-Scholar program, which also includes a laptop backpack and power cords.
That amounts to a 27 percent price cut from the current academic year, a reduction officials attribute to the declining cost of the machines. When the program first started, students paid $37.50 per credit, or about $4,500 over the course of their college careers.
"We continue to reduce the cost to our students of this popular program, while we add to the quality of the technology and the software that we offer," Sorensen said. "UW-Stout has been a leader nationwide in offering the latest technology to our students." Positive feedback When employers and alumni are surveyed, the e-Scholar program is well-received, with few complaints registered about the cost, Henderson said.
"When we started this a lot of people thought it was an additional fee and that our student numbers would go down," Henderson said. "It has not had an effect. Our numbers continue to go up." The simplicity of e-Scholar is one of its attractions, university officials said.
"One of the reasons our parents love our program is that it is completely hassle-free -- they don't have to decide anything, buy anything, get out their credit card," Mell said. "We take care of it for them." The program's reception also has pleased Sorensen.
"There were a lot of skeptics when we began the program," Sorensen said. "We now have a lot of survey data that shows our e-Scholar program has become an integral part of how we teach and learn at UW-Stout, and the program has exceeded all of our expectations." Henderson said it took quite a bit of effort to get the digital environment passed at UW-Stout. All three senates -- student, faculty and academic staff -- had to approve it in addition to the Board of Regents.
Stout Student Association President Sawyer Lubke said students are using their laptops 24-7 for note-taking, class projects, research and many uses outside the classroom.
"It also saves paper and helps the environment," Lubke said.
Many professors use a digital drop box so students don't have to print out papers. The professors are able to write comments and corrections in a different color.
Fellow student government member Tim Solfest said he believes the vast majority of students like the e-Scholar program.
"Having laptops incorporated in education and the university helps prepare us for the workplace," Solfest said. "Computers are an essential part of most workplaces. Because students are using their laptops so much, they don't recognize how much more technologically advanced they are when they enter the workplace. To me that speaks well of the program." April Godwin, 20, a sophomore majoring in early childhood education at UW-Stout, said she likes the e-Scholar program and thinks it is worth the cost to students.
"Some people want nicer laptops," she said. "I think they are reasonably priced. The important thing is the help desk. My laptop has been really good to me, but some people have had major problems.
"I'm not that into technology," she added. "If I have problems, it is good to know I can just take it to a place here on campus." Sari Grabow, 21, a senior retail major, said she thinks the e-Scholar program makes it easy on students because knowing she would get a laptop meant one less thing to think about before arriving on campus.
Still, she doesn't plan to keep hers after graduation because she prefers Apple computers, which she owned previously.
"They're kind of slow," she said of the HP computers. "It bothered me I didn't have a choice to use a Mac." For his part, Sorensen remains a strong supporter of the e-Scholar program and said the real challenge remains keeping up with rapidly changing technology.
"What's the technology of the future?" Sorensen asked. "That's our challenge. With all the new technology, where are we going next?" Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Powers can be reached at 715-556-9018 or email@example.com.
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