Stay-ahead students warm to technology fees

September 12, 1997

More than half of all public universities, a third of public two-year community colleges and a fifth of private colleges in the United States charged technology fees to students last year.

Many have increased the fees this autumn, and considerably more have added them.

The charges range from $1.50 per semester hour, say $ a year for a typical full-time student at Ashland University in Ohio to $300 a year at Guilford College, North Carolina. They cover everything from software upgrades at the University of Memphis to individual laptop computers loaned to every student in an experimental programme at Floyd College, Georgia.

Critics claim that the fees are a means of hiding increases in tuition fees, growing at twice the rate of inflation. Much of the increase has been blamed on the cost of new technology. Florida legislators this year refused to allow that state's universities to charge a technology fee of $100 per year, saying it was more honest to increase tuition and earmark part of the additional revenues for technology upgrades.

But students generally have been supportive - so much so that the student representative associations at Corpus Christi, Texas, Community College, the University of Wisconsin and Central Washington University appeared before those public institutions' governing bodies to back the idea. A technology fee was cheaper than requiring that every student buy a personal computer, they said. Also, by negotiating with the university, students at Central Washington were able to arrange for the additional charge to be phased in gradually.

"Tuition increases get bad press. Nobody likes them," said Chris Duckenfield, vice provost for information technology at Clemson University in South Carolina. "But if you go out and ask for a specific information technology fee that won't just disappear into the vast maw of the university, students can see the direct benefit they're getting for their money."

Some universities plaster new equipment with stickers reading "Your technology dollars at work," mimicking the billboards that appear over tax-supported US highway projects.

Clemson, a public university, imposed its $100-a-year fee only after failing to persuade the state legislature to appropriate more money for technology. By then, machines installed in 1995 were eight generations behind counterparts at rival campuses.

The Clemson fee will fund a long-term plan to upgrade computer networks, add computer labs, extend lab hours and replace workstations at least every two years. No one has complained so far, Dr Duckenfield said. "The kinds of complaints we're going to see I'm sure is when students can't get all the services they want to have, and they say, 'Why not? We're paying for it'".

That is an objection unlikely to be heard soon at Miami University of Ohio. That school has one of the highest technology fees: $180 a year for students in its 37 networked residence halls. But along with a high-speed data network over fibre optic cables, they get 50 news and entertainment TV channels and six academic channels, commercial-free radio and voice mail, can choose classes and register online over the $23 million information system.

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