Shifting the costs of Education IT

In recent years, major colleges and universities have begun requiring their students to bring laptops to college -- and in doing so have used this requirement as an excuse to dramatically cut Education IT spending. Who's paying the price for this short-sightedness?
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

As the cost of laptop and notebook computers has continued to drop (to within a $200 to $300 of the cost of a similarly capable desktop system), a growing number of colleges and universities have begun to require entering freshmen to bring a laptop/notebook computer to school with them.  Is this a good idea? 

Absolutely!  Whether a desktop or a laptop system, every college student would be well-advised to invest in a new computer (desktop or laptop/notebook) before going off to college.  A new computer can be expected to last throughout a student's college career and prepare them for the profession that awaits them after graduation. 

(My minimum recommendation?  2GHz+ CPU, 1GB+ RAM, advance GPU, 80GB+ HD, 15" flat panel display.  Forget about the 'free' inkjet printer -- it'll cost you dramatically more than printing on your school's laser printers!)

Many colleges and universities have made arrangements with their hardware vendors to provide interested students with institution-specific configurations at prices dramatically lower than similar configurations at the nearby Circuit City (or wherever students shop for computer hardware.)

If you are at a college and university without such a computer requirement, you can expect that as many as 85% of your students will own computers anyway (and as many as 85% of those computers are laptops/notebooks).  In short, the requirement does little but encourage the other 15% to jump on board.  Still -- this is very good advice for anyone entering college.

If your school has such a requirement, what is the impact of this policy on your Education IT budget? 

If the answer to this question is not "NONE!" your decision-makers better take a second look at how they are spending your university's IT money! 

Unfortunately, many colleges and universities without separately-funded IT units, or otherwise robust computing infrastructures, are under the mistaken impression that by requiring students to bring their own computers to school, that Education IT need not invest in personal workstations, or instructional software for their students to use. 

Well, they couldn't be more wrong! And here's a few reasons why ...

  • Discipline-specific software:  A growing number of college professors use modern discipline-specific software to teach their courses.  This software is often upgraded every year and much of it costs hundreds of dollars per-seat.  Instead of asking each student to invest these dollars every year to upgrade software on their personal computers in order to meet their needs for one or two classes, Education IT can install that software on dramatically fewer seats in its student labs without the student incurring the added expense. 
  • Volume/purchase licensing:  Just as the Education IT department can obtain aggressively-price computer configurations for its student, they can also obtain discipline-specific software at far lower prices than the student could hope to pay to obtain that software privately.
  • Printing resources:  The cost to Education IT to provide B&W printing resources to it's students can be as low as $4.00 per 100 pages.  (Including the amortized cost or printers and print management software.)  Those same 100 pages could cost a student up to $20.00 if printed on those 'free' printers that come with many computers these days.  Why?  Because the cost per page for ink is dramatically higher than the cost per page for toner (that powered stuff the laser printer uses).  This doesn't even count the low cost of paper for large institutions who buy in very large volumes. 

Don't be fooled by those institutions who claim to have successfully reduced their Education IT expenses by establishing computer ownership requirements for their students. 

Have they done so?  Sure -- but at the expense of their students who are now paying far more to meet their educational needs than they would have by paying a modest technology fee to their institution to have Education IT cover these expenses.

Are their computing labs empty of students?  Yes, but this is a self-fulfilling prophesy!  If Education IT doesn't have life-cycle funding for its workstations, they rapidly become too lame to be of use.

What about faculty?  Very likely, faculty have turned to their departments to fund their own small student labs to meet their discipline-specific needs.  This splinters university purchases into small chunks, spread between a variety of vendors -- reducing buying power and frustrating departments trying to serve the needs of their students and their faculty.  This splintering ultimately costs the university more, not less, but without centralized budgeting, it is easy to mask these inefficiencies. 

Whether funded out-of-pocket, through student technology fees, or through general university funds, 90% of the computing activity on your campus network today still revolves around personal productivity applications.  But this by no means reflects where the IT dollars are spent.  The great bulk of those expenses are for meeting mission-critical infrastructure needs.  Most of the rest goes to discipline-specific needs.  Savings realized through enterprise agreements and volume licensing far outweigh the added up-front expense.

It's penny-wise and pound foolish to ask your students to pay more for computing resources than is necessary for them to get the education they deserve. 

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