Colleges Turn From In-House E-mail To Free Gmail

Universities are trading in their server-clogging in-house e-mail systems for Gmail, which Google offers to schools free. Colleges that make the switch save time, money and precious disc space. But at least one school has backed off, and a few students are asking, "What's the catch?"

As colleges and universities across the nation look for ways to cut costs, a number of schools are trading in-house e-mail systems for Gmail. Google provides schools with more disc space and a special Apps for Education package at a very competitive price: free.

Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., promises its students a Wesleyan e-mail account for life. So when the university outsourced its e-mail to Google in late 2008, Karen Warren, director of user and technical services at Wesleyan, says the university wanted to make good on that promise.

"We committed to making all the functionality that they had from their old system, plus more. And the big 'plus more' was space. We were running out of space," she says.

Even before the switch, more than half the student body was using Gmail to bypass the Wesleyan e-mail interface, she says.

"Clunky would be a charitable description of how the e-mail used to work, and the thing that I've most noticed after the switch over to Google is that things have become a lot more streamlined and things have become a lot more centralized," says Nicholas Marshall, a senior at Wesleyan.

A Money Saver For Schools

Universities have to maintain large amounts of server space to house data, like student e-mail. But as students send bigger and bigger files, like videos and pictures, on-site storage gets costly. It makes Gmail an attractive — and cheap — alternative.

Google offers 7 gigabytes of storage space to its Gmail customers — including the 7.5 million students around the world who use Google Apps for Education. And that saves schools time, money and precious disc space.

Plus, the apps are pretty cool.

"We've brought in several feeds from our student newspaper, from some of our active blogs on campus and our events calendar," says Warren, the Wesleyan administrator.

From there, students can access e-mail, Google Docs, chat, video, spreadsheets and more. But the kicker?

"There are absolutely no ads in this interface at all," Warren says.

So What's 'The Catch'?

Cristin Frodella, a senior marketing manager for education at Google, says this is not a strategy to make money.

"We give it away for free now," Frodella says. "We plan to always give it away for free. You know, Google actually started in the education world, and so we'd like to continue to support education. And we think this is a great way for us to support it."

No ads, no charge — what's the catch?

"That's a very good question. The answer isn't entirely clear," says Christian Csar, a senior computer science major at Yale University.

He says he was troubled when he heard that Yale was planning to migrate student e-mail to Google. "There are some distinct privacy concerns because Google now has complete access to your e-mail in order to show it to you," he says.

Frodella says students shouldn't worry. "The school owns all of the student's private data. We are not looking at it. The school owns all of it," Frodella says.

That doesn't necessarily comfort Csar. Not that his worries keep him from using Google altogether, though — he actually has five personal Gmail accounts. But it's a service he opts into and can opt out of at any time. Csar doesn't want his school making that decision for him.

For the time being, at least, it won't. Yale put its plans to "go Google" on hold, and it has declined to elaborate on the decision or its future plans.

Copyright 2010 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnpr.org.

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