(The following article was published Monday, April 23, 2007 in the Macon Telegraph.)
By JENNIFER BURK
Mercer University students who don't feel safe on a nighttime walk through campus soon will have the option of setting an alarm to notify campus police if they don't reach their destination.
That's just one of the features included in a new cell phone plan designed specifically for Mercer students.
Starting this fall, all Mercer freshmen - officials anticipate about 620 of them - will be enrolled in the cell phone plan, said Terry Whittum, senior vice president for enrollment management. Current students may decide if they wish to purchase a plan, but they are not required to.
Mercer is one of a growing number of universities that offer students a cell phone plan with admission. Georgia Gwinnett College also plans to offer the technology in the fall.
The Mercer cell phone plan, which is supported by Rave Wireless and Sprint Nextel, will allow campus administrators to better communicate with students.
"Even with the land lines in (the residence halls), there was always the issue of being able to communicate with our students," Whittum said.
Now with just a few strokes of a keypad, a text message may be sent instantly to all Mercer cell phones, allowing administrators to alert students of potentially dangerous situations, such as hazardous weather, Whittum said.
The phones also would give Mercer officials the capability to alert the university community in the event of a tragedy like the recent one at Virginia Tech, said Mickey Belote, Mercer's associate vice president for information technology. However, the cell phone plan has been in the works for about nine months and was not developed as a result of the shootings, he said.
Freshmen probably will pay a $180 to $190 fee each semester for the base plan, which they automatically will be enrolled in, Belote said. The exact cost still is being finalized, he said.
A base phone is provided free of charge, but upgraded phones, such as a RAZR or Treo will be available for a cost.
Students also may choose to upgrade their plans to get additional minutes.
Among its features, the phone offers Global Positioning System technology that will allow students to track the progress of the trolley from downtown Macon to Mercer. Although students may activate the GPS to notify campus police of their whereabouts, federal regulations prevent the university from tracking students, Belote said.
Students may use the phones to access their e-mail as well as the university's course management system, which allows students to check grades and assignments.
Sprint Nextel will ensure Mercer's Macon and Atlanta campuses have the infrastructure to guarantee coverage, he said.
With the addition of cell phones, land lines most likely will be turned off in residence halls, although a student may request them to be turned on, Belote said. "Our goal is to ensure that we have effective communications between 100 percent of our students," he said.
Cell phones seemed to be a logical step because most students on campus rely on them for communication, he said.
In fall 2004, nine in 10 college students owned a cell phone, according to Student Monitor, a market research company.
Each year, a new freshman class will be entered into the cell phone program, so in four years, almost all students should have one.
However, Belote admitted that cell phones are not infallible and only are effective communication tools if students actually carry the phones with them.
Akeem Anderson, a junior political science major, said the safety features and GPS technology are appealing, but he's not sure if he's going to opt for the Mercer plan or keep his own.
"I am going to look at the plan," he said. "If it is better than what I have already, then, yeah, I'll join the plan."