Freshman Max Bender uses the phone plugged into the wall of his American University dorm room so rarely that he forgot it was there. "Hey," he said the other day when he walked in and saw it on top of the microwave. "We do have a land line."
Starting next fall, AU students conditioned to cell phones will find few of those wired artifacts as the school all but eliminates traditional phone service in its residence halls.
Max Bender of AU has had a cell phone for years and rarely uses a wired version.
(Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
Across the country, wired phones are becoming obsolete. Although not many colleges have eliminated them, "almost every major school is evaluating it," said Jeri Semer, executive director of the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education.
This transformation of campus culture -- cell phones keeping students closely tied to friends and family, making social life fluid, even intruding on professors' lectures -- also poses a financial challenge for administrators. Land-line phones used to bring in money for many schools. Now some find themselves paying to maintain systems that students rarely use.
"Six or seven years ago, telephones on campus were a cash cow," said Glenn Gaslin of Morrisville State College in New York, which got rid of its land lines in 2003 and provided students with mobile phones, with an option to add long-distance service. Marshall University in West Virginia will complete a switch to cell phones in student housing in the fall, giving out phones that include long-distance calling plans.
It wasn't that long ago, a generation perhaps, when students had to wait in line to use communal phones in dormitory hallways. Five years ago, just over one-third of U.S. college students had cell phones on campus, according to a national survey by the market-research firm Student Monitor. In the fall, nearly nine of 10 did.
At James Madison University in Harrisonburg, the student directory is no longer full of four-digit dorm-room extensions, but rather 10-digit cell phone numbers from Tennessee, New Jersey, Delaware and other states. James Madison administrators don't want to tell students that they have to bring cell phones, though, said spokesman Andrew Perrine.
"It's like requiring kids to show up with golf clubs or something," he said.
Leaders of some U.S. universities -- including George Washington, the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia -- are evaluating their phone options. Some administrators aren't sure that they could ensure student safety without at least a few land lines in dorms. And some students worry that 911 calls from cell phones might not be routed properly and that "dead zones" might leave them without service.
At GWU, which plans to have fewer wired phones in student rooms, officials also are concerned about the potentially higher costs for international students calling overseas on cells.
American University already feels unplugged. The campus is wireless, so students can type e-mails and study on laptops from couches, the steps of the library and benches outside. Snatches of one-sided conversations drift by as students walk to class talking on their cells. Next fall, the university will provide business school students the latest BlackBerry devices.
Bender and his friend Lauren Fox, who lives on the same dorm hall, have each had a cell phone for years, although Bender keeps getting new ones after losing or breaking them.
One day last week, Fox, in her room with a frosting-pink lamp and flowered bedspread, had her cell close at hand, next to her laptop, just as her roommate did. She said she talks to her parents in Texas twice a day, usually, and to her twin sister in Indiana at least four times a day -- the two use 2,000 minutes a month.
"It used to be you'd call someone because you had a reason to call," said Ian Johnson, 28, a graduate student at American. "Now you call because you're bored waiting for the bus to come. . . . It's almost a noise pollution."
In the past three years at AU, long-distance calls from the dorm phones plummeted.
Five years ago, the school made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on long-distance service, said Carl Whitman, executive director of the Office of Information Technology. Last semester, the school made $1,109.
The money that colleges charged students helped pay for their decades-old phone systems; now they can't even get some parts when things break, said Julie E. Weber, AU's executive director of housing and dining programs.
So come fall, American will have some land-line phones in hallways for local calls, one for every 40 to 50 students, but administrators don't expect them to get much use.
Replacing the phone system in the residence halls would cost more than $1 million, Whitman said, estimating that $100,000 a year would be saved on operating costs.
And what about the students who can't afford cell phones? "Not everyone is fortunate enough," Bender said.
He and Fox looked at each other, trying to think of someone at AU -- but everyone they know has one.