College affordability has quickly become one of the defining issues that shapes the way students shop for schools. And the price tag of it all remains top of mind when students make decisions about what supplies they’ll haul off to start college.

For many, buying a laptop ahead of the transition has become a forgone conclusion. One 2014 survey found 90 percent of students own laptops and 86 percent own smartphones, while less than half of those surveyed own tablets. It’s those kinds of numbers, coupled with schools’ own data showing that ownership has skyrocketed to near-ubiquity in just a few years, that some say is driving journalism schools to mandate laptop ownership.

J-schools approach the issue from a unique vantage point: storytelling is increasingly reliant on capturing video and audio using an iPhone, editing news packages remotely, and filing stories on location. Will journalism educators reach a tipping point where the depth of instruction suffers should students not have regular, reliable access to the portable technology that has become the centerpiece of a digital journalist’s arsenal? And should it fall to students to pick up the tab for a laptop and smartphone for school?

Part of a broader trend

The underlying thorniness of the issue is that, when compared to four years of tuition and room and board, a laptop becomes a comparatively nominal fee. Heather Jarvis, an expert on student loans, said while the push for students to own their own devices has certainly affected the cost of a degree, the most significant expense for students has come from tuition increasing as schools expand their own technology systems.

Jarvis said technology requirements for students are part of a far larger trend: as government support for universities and colleges declines, the financial burden is often passed along to students and their families. Every dollar counts, but the broader picture is important.

“If a computer costs $1,000, that’s a small part of what is really strangling us about the cost of higher education,” Jarvis said. “[But] a computer is a major purchase for most Americans … It’s not inconsequential.”

Owning a computer also undeniably enhances students’ mobility and freedom, she said, and it has come to the point where it would be difficult to navigate school without one and having unfettered access provides a real advantage.

Laptop requirements as a financial aid loophole

For some universities, classifying a personal computer as required equipment is intended as an affordability measure in itself.

Lynda Kraxberger, an associate dean at Missouri’s School of Journalism, said the realization that making wireless laptops mandatory would allow students to report the expense on their federal student aid applications was “the turning point for making it a requirement” ahead of a vote from the university’s full faculty in 2005 (financial aid doesn’t cover supplies that are deemed optional or recommended).

Since then, she says, it’s “very rare” that students arrive on campus without their own laptop. After Kraxberger became a dean in 2012, she said she was prepared for potential negative feedback from parents about the requirement, but heard none.

“I don’t think we need to bend over backwards to justify why students need laptops for college anymore,” she said. “I think parents appreciate honest exchange of info about [what students need].”

Conversations have turned to whether other devices — tablets and smartphones in particular – should be required of students, but Kraxberger says officials are waiting for a “tipping point” when tablets can feasibly replace laptops before considering changing the existing requirement. For now, the solution has been to maintain a lending library of high-end cameras and other equipment, while allowing students to borrow an iPad for the semester if a course calls for it.

Missouri’s tech requirements have ebbed and flowed over the years. In 2009, administrators sent out a letter instructing incoming freshman to come with an iPhone or iPod touch, a requirement Kraxberger said had great potential but that “seems so quaint now” and only lasted one year.

“There wasn’t an overwhelming groundswell of support from faculty to reconfigure classes to use that technology,” she said. “I think we learned a lot.”

In 2011, the school recommended students buy Apple laptops, which the university’s tech shop currently sells for between about $900 and $1,700, a move critics characterized as a decisive expression of brand loyalty without clear benefits for journalism students. Today, the university encourages students to buy the computer that will best serve their area of study, and the J-School’s messaging makes it clear that the Mac versus Windows dichotomy is a personal preference, according to Kraxberger.

USC Annenberg computers students

An aerial view of workstations at USC Annenberg. Photo courtesy of USC Annenberg.

Moving toward ‘near ubiquity’

Before students and staff at University of Southern California Annenberg moved into their new building in fall 2014 – and implemented a “bring your own device” requirement – the groundwork for a fully digital network had already been laid.

It’s what James Vasquez, associate dean of facilities and technology, sees as the university’s end of the deal: students bring their own computers, and the campus invests in building the digital infrastructure to support their devices.

“We see students investing in these devices themselves, so we should take advantage of these devices on campus while providing a robust digital infrastructure,” Vasquez said.

The road to implementing a technology requirement was years in the making, starting when administrators set out to study how other schools were approaching the issue. When the school’s 2010 technology survey found around 90 percent of students owned laptops and 73 percent had smartphones, decision-makers forecasted the technology trends to come, namely, that students would own more devices and the new Wallis Annenberg building should be built to support them. The trend has held: Vasquez said the J-School’s most recent survey showed student ownership of both laptops and smartphones hovering around 100 percent.

That plan has also meant closing campus computer labs in favor of a wireless network he says can support the school’s 800 students accessing the network with two or three devices at a time, providing all students and staff with Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite for no additional fee and working with cellular providers to ensure students have a data connection even in basement classrooms. Launching the school’s newly-minted digital lounge, where students can enroll in skills-based workshops and earn a Photoshop certification, has also been a cornerstone in building what Vasquez calls a ubiquitous wireless environment.

journalism student laptop lecture

Photo courtesy of Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

‘We wanted to keep it simple and affordable’

The majority of journalism schools don’t have technology requirements in place. At Arizona State, that’s been a decision founded on a greater pedagogical responsibility to reduce as many barriers to access as possible.

For the Cronkite School, that comes in the form of maintaining almost 300 workstations in the school, each loaded with the same software. Assistant Dean Mark Lodato said this ensures equal access for all students to the software programs 24 hours a day. He pointed to students going on reporting trips to Nicaragua and covering both parties’ national conventions fully equipped with ASU-issued high end cameras, computers, and audio equipment as the kind of work made possible by the school’s policies.

He said students “certainly still own laptops” but gone are the perennial concerns about compatibility, programs being up-to-date, and incoming students fretting about buying the right computer.

“Students have enough challenges today in the educational environment, and this is one we can handle for them,” Lodato, who’s also the school’s news director, said. “Tech and software are changing so quickly that it puts a lot of burden on the students … We wanted to keep it simple and affordable.”

Katherine Krueger is an editor with the Guardian US Opinion section in New York. She is a recent journalism graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former editor in chief of The Badger Herald. You can find her tweeting frequently at @kath_krueger.