Almost overnight, the nation's college campuses got wired. Students now sign up for classes and receive final grades over campus networks. They view professors' Power Point presentations in their dormitory rooms, consult faculty advisers using e-mail and stay in touch with friends back home or down the hall via the Internet. The hot movie on campus the other weekend was The Beach, downloaded from the Internet and playing (illegally) in dorm lounges across the country. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, even some of the campus laundry rooms are online--the washing machines are able to send students e-mail when a load is done. "I don't even remember how it happened," says Mamta Motwani, who arrived at the University of Texas at Austin 1992 and is finishing up a PhD in higher education. "All of a sudden, it was just there."
High tech has become the latest recruiting tool colleges are using to woo a generation of students who grew up around personal computers. Colleges try to have enough shared computer facilities to go around. But with virtually every school now strongly suggesting that students have their own computers, you now have to add a host of tech questions to those you have about academic and athletic programs.
FUDGING? A good place to start your tech search is Yahoo! Internet Life's annual Wired Colleges issue, which ranks 200 schools and comes out every May (www.zdnet.com/yil/content/college). Last year's top-ranked school was Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University, although the student newspaper has charged that the survey response had been fudged. MIT and Wake Forest University were ranked second and third, respectively. Indeed, like all college rankings, the Yahoo one has become controversial, with smaller colleges complaining they were jilted only for reasons of size and some big-name colleges refusing to participate because of the fine distinctions between schools that the survey draws.
Says Gregory A. Jackson, chief information officer at the University of Chicago, which is sitting out this year's list: "A pass-fail test is enough for most institutions at this level." But the list is still a good place to get a feel for how your candidate schools stack up against one another. Another good resource is at www.educause.edu.
Your first question should be about the school's "port-to-pillow ratio." Does every student have a personal connection to the campus network in his or her dorm room? This can be critical. Many colleges now give students free access to online resources available to outsiders only at extra cost. Columbia University, for one, lets students visit Early English Books Online, which contains digitized images of more than 96,000 printed books published between 1475 and 1700. Included are the first printed editions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare's first quartos and folios. With many assignments requiring the use of such online databases as Lexis-Nexis or Dow Jones News Retrieval, and professors often requiring that assignments be filed electronically, it's vital to have full-time access.
If on-campus housing is in short supply, check out the alternatives as well. Some sororities and fraternities are now wiring their rooms into the campus net, and private dorms and off-campus apartments have started installing high-speed Internet connections to compete for the overflow. Indeed, there's a new price to pay for the privilege of living off-campus. "You get spoiled," says Wellesley senior Shana Hildebrand, who opted for an apartment on her own in Boston this year. "Now, I have to schedule computer time on campus, and then I have to remember to bring my disks."
GROWING FAST. Even if you're assured a room, try to figure out whether the school has enough Internet capacity to go around. The best way to determine that is to visit the campus. Snag a few students--those with laptops are a good bet--and ask them how they like their connection. If they talk about Internet traffic jams or the school's attempt to regulate or filter access, you know that there's going to be trouble.
The problem is that on-campus Internet use is growing exponentially, and it doesn't take much of a blip on the network to bring it to its knees. At University of Southern California, for example, Internet use has quadrupled in just the past year. Colleges, long sensitive to freedom-of-speech issues, are loath to place restrictions on what their students can download from the Internet. But once in a while a program comes along that can overwhelm a school's network if it's not keeping up.
The current dilemma is Napster, a program that eases the trading of MP3 music files, a favorite pastime of students. Some colleges, such as Indiana University, have simply blocked access to Napster's central servers. Most, however, are struggling to strike a balance that allows reasonable recreational use and more legitimate scholarly pursuits. At USC, students can now download up to 3.5 gigabytes--roughly 1,000 titles in the MP3 music format--over a two-hour period without getting a warning e-mail from campus administrators.
COMMON GRIPES. Another way to figure out if a college's commitment to technology goes beyond the glossy brochures and Web sites is to ask whether top administrators use it. Chances are if the chancellor, provost, or president expects to communicate by e-mail, profs will be putting coursework on the network and staffers will be streamlining the tasks that chew up so much of students' time. Two particular gripes: waiting in line all night to ensure a seat in a popular professor's class, and walking pink slips to the registrar's office to drop and add courses.
Not only is the Web making registration easier. It is also helping students land jobs before and after graduation. Online recruiting of graduating seniors is the latest twist at the fully wired college, but you should be able to use it to line up part-time work and summer internships, too. This year, Wellesley College seniors for the first time are using the Internet to research companies, send resumes and cover letters, and schedule on-campus interviews with recruiters. For some, this is a lifesaver. Mia Santos, a 22-year-old political science major, spent the fall semester sick at home in San Francisco, yet managed to get her interviews with recruiters for several major retailers scheduled for the spring.
Soon, the wired campus will be wireless. By this fall, students at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University will be able to buy a $100 card for laptop computers that will hook them up to the school's network no matter where they are on the 103-acre campus. That way they'll be able to work on their tans and their research at the same time.