Thursday, Sep. 04, 2008

Why Colleges Are Making Laptops A Must-Have

With laptops having become as ubiquitous on college campuses as flip-flops and kegs, at many schools these pricey machines are now must-have accessories. Literally. In a move that helps both debt-laden students and computer makers fighting for market share, some colleges and universities in the U.S. are partnering with tech firms to make them the sole supplier of products their customers are being forced to buy, albeit at below-market prices.

Although the average laptop now costs half as much as it did five years ago, according to market research firm Creative Strategies, it's still the most expensive item most students need to get for school — and isn't always covered by financial aid. Some colleges merely require that computers meet minimum specifications for speed, power, storage and wireless capabilities. Others partner with one or more companies and strongly recommend that students purchase specific machines. But many schools are choosing a third route, in which computer companies negotiate exclusive deals that require students to purchase specially configured laptops that come loaded with software used on campus.

Through a program called ThinkPad University, Lenovo has become the exclusive laptop provider for more than 450 schools worldwide, including North Carolina's Wake Forest University and Babson College in Massachusetts. "When institutions have purchasing agreements with technology companies, they generate aggressive discounts — more aggressive than the consumer market offers," says Mike Schmedlen, an education industry executive at Lenovo, the world's fourth-biggest PC maker. Dell has a similar program, Dell University, and works with "thousands" of higher education institutions. Citing confidentiality agreements, both companies and schools declined to specify just how deep the discounts are, though several told TIME they can reach 15% below regular retail prices.

These deals not only let student bodies reap the benefits of buying in bulk, but also simplify the demands placed on school IT departments by reducing the number of variables tech support has to deal with. "We like to move universities away from discounted catalogs to specific configurations," says John Mullen, Dell's vice president and general manager for education. "Students get the advantage of better prices, and IT departments get the benefit of dealing with fewer standards on campus," he says. Adds Lenovo's Schmedlen: "Schools understand their environment much better than any prospective student could. They're very much compelled to provide [packages] that last four years, not the flavor of the month."

Although prospective students may balk at set-in-stone requirements, these arrangements can also be an inducement to pick one school over another. Brian Brooks, an associate dean at the University of Missouri's journalism school, says enrollment spiked four years ago when Missouri made laptops mandatory. The requirement also enabled students to factor the purchase into financial aid packages and to finance the laptops over four semesters. "It's a pretty attractive option," he says, adding that for public universities, "it's particularly important to be sensitive to cost."

In addition to laptops, some universities are also trying to unlock the mobile learning opportunities afforded by trendier gadgets. This fall Texas' Abilene Christian University distributed Apple's iPhones and iPod Touches to its freshman class; the student guinea pigs will be able to use them to receive homework alerts and in-class quizzes or locate professors' offices. In Ohio, Case Western Reserve University is giving a Kindle, Amazon's new digital book reader, to students in freshman seminars and introductory chemistry classes. The device eliminates the need to lug around expensive textbooks by allowing students to download them onto one 10-oz. gadget.

Meanwhile, Case Western's medical school is mandating that students buy Dell "tablet" computers, laptops whose monitors swivel around to become writing pads. With an accompanying software package, the machine costs students about $1,500. The school, however, is convinced that the need for cutting-edge technology justifies the price. "Just like doctors today walk around with stethoscopes, doctors for the next generation will be using the interfaces of these tablets and other kinds of mobile technology," says Lev Gonick, Case Western's vice president of IT. And companies are no doubt hoping that graduates will keep using the brands they had in school. (To see the evolution of the college dorm room click here.)