If administrators want college students to hear them loud and clear, they'd better keep up with the times.

"Students don't want to read e-mails from us. They don't want to receive letters from us," said Karen Pennington, vice president for Student Development and Campus Life at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J.

Members of the rising generation open their cell phones to find out what's new. So four years ago, Pennington asked Edward Chapel, Montclair State's associate vice president of IT, to look into how the school could use the ever-present devices riding in students' backpacks or clamped to their ears.

Today students at Montclair State use cell phones to get all kinds of information from the university and their peers. They can check what's on the dining hall menu, broadcast text messages to groups of friends, locate the nearest shuttle bus in real time, get the word on canceled classes or contact campus police if they feel unsafe. In the future, the university might use its Campus Connect wireless data service to deliver recorded academic lectures and "your laundry is dry" alerts.

Making the Connection

Working with Rave Wireless, Montclair State piloted Campus Connect with 100 students in spring 2005, and launched the program that fall, making it mandatory for all incoming freshmen living on campus. All new students and on-campus sophomores must subscribe to the service, which costs $186 or more per semester, depending on the level of service. Other students may enroll at their discretion.

Enforcing a cell phone standard was a better solution than wrestling with all the incompatible, nonintegrated wireless technologies students bring to campus, Chapel said. "We decided to enter into an arrangement that would systematize what [students] would use, and we could have a uniform means of communicating out to them, and them back to the university and amongst themselves."

To operate Campus Connect, the university resells wireless voice and data service from Sprint Nextel, which installed cell sites on campus to boost coverage. New students and returning sophomores who have packages with other carriers may still use them, but must also subscribe to Campus Connect. Those who want to make Campus Connect their only wireless carrier can transfer their phone numbers from other services. The program also reimburses as much as $100 of another carrier's early termination fee for students who switch. About 85 percent of students who subscribed to other services opt to use Campus Connect exclusively, Chapel said.

Montclair State requires students to subscribe to Campus Connect because the service supports academic applications. "It's part of the equipment for being at the university," Pennington said, adding that it lets students access course information through the Web-based Blackboard system and communicate with professors, and is helpful when transacting business. "It would be foolish not to have this in your hand and do it, as opposed to having to go to a building, find a lab or boot up a laptop."

Now You See Me, Now You Don't

One of the first applications Campus Connect introduced was access to dining hall menus, Pennington said. Students also wanted a way to check events listings and see when they could catch the next shuttle bus, which along with several other location-based services, comes courtesy of the GPS chips installed in their mobile phones.

Students can turn the location feature on or off at will, ruling out the chance that the school will employ it to spy out who's skipping class or gathering for underage keg parties. Students use the feature to make their locations known to selected groups of friends and find those friends on campus. With GPS devices installed on shuttle buses, a student can see when the next bus is due at a specific location.

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer