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Although their $18,975 annual tuition does not cover the cost of textbooks or spiral notebooks, incoming freshmen at Hartwick College do get one big bonus: a Zenith laptop computer.

Hartwick, a private college in Oneonta, N.Y., began issuing the laptops three years ago, and is now one of at least two dozen colleges nationwide that require students to own a computer.

Some, like Hartwick, give the computers to students and factor the cost into tuition. Others, like Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., allow students to buy them at a discount and spread the cost over four years. Many either provide free computers or lower the price for students who cannot afford them.

Many colleges have instituted the requirement in recent years, though some have had the rule for more than a decade. Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., began requiring computer ownership in 1982.

Faculty members at Stevens say they can assign more "real world" problems since students have access to the same technology as professional scientists and engineers. And e-mail has become a preferred mode of communication.

"Many college students tend to be a bit more nocturnal," said Leslie Maltz, the director of computing and communications resources at Stevens. "So they can send a message at 3 A.M. that a faculty member may see at 8 A.M."

Some schools require "notebook" computers and encourage students to take the lightweight, portable units to class. There, students can take notes or use customized software designed by professors--such as a biology program that simulates the dissection of a frog.

Other institutions have balked at requiring students to own computers. Administrators at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., have focused instead on providing enough public computer terminals for students.

Even officials at schools that have adopted the requirement have worried that the cost may scare some students away.

The Rose-Hulman Instituteof Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., will require this year's new students to buy a notebook computer and software for $3,400. "We were really scared that requiring the computer would cause problems in admissions," said Kevin Davidson, the director of the Waters Computing Center there. "But quite the opposite has happened."

Although school officials predicted a freshman class of 400, already 480 students plan to attend, Mr. Davidson said.

--Meg Sommerfeld

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