Wow, does this Washington Post article make me feel old. The premise of the piece is that colleges now find it difficult to track down or get messages to their students, since most don’t have in-dorm telephones or voicemail and don’t check their college-issued email all that much. It’s a fact that I’ve now heard in different contexts a bunch of times over the past few months, and I feel like it’s the first concrete thing that makes me feel completely separated from today’s generation of young’uns.

I graduated from college just a hair over a decade ago, and during my four years, email went from mostly inaccessible to an essential staple of every student’s life. Talking to friends a few weekends ago, Shannon and I were stunned to learn that for most of today’s students, the term “checking email” has nothing to do with college email accounts, or even Gmail or Hotmail — instead, it means logging into Facebook or MySpace and reading your incoming messages. Similarly, while my university had digital phones with campus-wide voicemail in every dorm room (and used the system regularly to push out notices and information), a not-insignificant number of students at my alma mater today have never picked up their in-room phones, and actually don’t even know their own campus phone numbers. It’s amazing how fast things change.

That being said, these changes aren’t all that surprising, given that the fundamental roles of email and telephones have changed in college today. When I was in college, getting access to an email account wasn’t trivial; the free email services didn’t exist, the internet was new enough that setting up access to an email account was anything but trivial, and it took the infrastructure of colleges and reasonable-sized corporations to get most people into the fraternity of email users. Email was also novel enough that it was instantly appealing to college students, and there weren’t really any other options for talking to friends from back home (unless you wanted to pour money into your long-distance plan). Now, with instant messaging, social networking, and SMS-enabled cellphones, email is the least convenient of all the electronic communication methods available to college students (given the crushing amount of the erectile dysfunction spam, and what I’d imagine is an equally-crushing amount of college-related spam). Likewise, a decade ago, campuses used their functional monopoly power to satiate students’ need for phones in their dorm rooms, but today that monopoly is gone, and there’s little to recommend an in-room telephone when any student can get a cellphone for a lower price with more features and a more durable phone number. The rules of communication have changed, and it’d appear that colleges haven’t kept up… but it’d also appear that I’m getting old.