Colleges and the smartphone wave

Sure, there may be students among the 15,000-plus undergraduates at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who don’t carry a smartphone. But “I haven’t seen them,” says campus telecommunications director Tom Walsh.

Indeed, smartphones have insinuated themselves into campus life in a relatively short time. Some 93% of college students had one last spring, says market-research company Student Monitor, based on a survey of 1,200 four-year full-time students on 100 college and university campuses. Three years earlier that number was 84%.

That’s light-years away from his day, Walsh says, when a pay phone at each end of the residence hall was the link to the outside world.

But as students have migrated to smartphones, colleges and universities face a problem. In the 2014-15 school year, for instance, Miami University logged about 130,000 fewer long-distance calls from on-campus landline phones and 273,000 fewer long-distance calls from students off campus. It lost about $300,000 in phone revenues, which primarily paid for the landline system.

Over the past decade, many schools have been trying to cash in on the smartphone craze by negotiating service plans of their own as a way to meet student demand, save money and, perhaps, create a new revenue source.

Some years ago, for instance, Miami University began offering a plan, including an option that includes a free phone, which it negotiated with Cincinnati Bell Wireless. For $15 a month and a $25 set-up fee, students can get 300 anytime local minutes, plus 3-cents-a-minute rates beyond that. They also get features such as caller ID and voice mail. Long distance charges out of the area range from eight to 12 cents a minute.

“A huge user could have probably found a better deal,” Walsh says, but at that time, “we think it fitted most people.”

A number of schools, including State University of New York at Albany, Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and San Diego State University, meanwhile, had signed with CampusCell, a then year-old New Hampshire-based company that offered schools rates of $1.50 to $2.50 a month for every enrolled user. All the school had to do was let the company distribute brochures through campus mail.

And at that same time, Morrisville State College in New York eliminated landlines in dorm rooms altogether, handing out a cellphone to each of the 1,700 students living in residence halls. As part of their dorm services fee, each student got free incoming calls and unlimited state-wide calling. They could also buy long-distance plans back then starting at $29.99.

Economics aside, the reasons for the popularity of smartphones are clear: Parents appreciate being able to keep in contact with their kids, especially if there’s an emergency. And students, many of whom spend little time in their dorm rooms or apartments, like the flexibility and convenience.

“I’m very busy on campus . . . so it’s nice having that connection and not having to worry about all the calls I missed while I was at work or the computer lab,” says Jamie Mikula, 22, a senior at St. Norbert College in DePere, Wis.

For service providers, the allure of snagging a contract with a college or university is access to a captive audience. “You can’t imagine how big this industry is,” says CampusCell CEO Donald Goodearl, referring to the nation’s 11 million college-age students. Not only are they tech-savvy, “they’re heavy talkers,” he says.

His company markets directly to individual users, but universities that develop their own deals also can ask providers for a percentage of ongoing service revenues as part of the bargain.

“In exchange for our helping them to market to the students, we’re certainly looking for something in return,” says Carl Whitman, executive director of e-operations at American University in Washington, D.C. The campus is looking to develop long-distance plans with a service provider as it moves closer to creating a wireless campus. “It’s meant to be a win-win” for everyone, he says.

Not every deal worked to the school’s advantage. Some years way back, St. Norbert College gave smartphones to 50 students housed in a former assisted-living building, but found the plan cost nearly five times as much as traditional landlines: $12,000 compared with $2,500.

Students liked the perk, but “economically it was a no-brainer” to go back to landlines, says facilities director John Barnes. Also, “an awful lot of students came with their own smartphones, so . . . we were being a little redundant.” Even so, technology’s true believers already back then said that, just as computers have revolutionized higher education, so, too, would smartphones.

Morrisville State College president Ray Cross, for instance, envisioned then already a day when each smartphone would allow a student to use it as an ID card, campus debit card and key to their residence halls.

“You walk around campus and these kids are talking to each other all the time. And it’s beep-beep,” Cross says. “In some ways, it drives you nuts, but you have to smile because in some ways it’s a reflection of what’s going on socially with young men and women around the country. Instant communication is very popular.”