Student Voice: Do College Students Prefer Paper or Digital?

Suchita Chadha is a junior at Emerson College and the author of our weekly “Student Voice” column.

For some, it’s the 12-page secondary reading supplement they’re required to bring to class; for others, it’s the 12-page draft of an essay that must be peer-reviewed. Whatever the cause may be, those few minutes you have before you need to get to class are a lip-gnawing, feet-bouncing, nail-tapping race against the printer.

Now, we know that procrastinating isn’t a good thing. But that doesn’t mean we can stop it. Moreover, chances are that our schedules don’t allow for work to be done in a timely manner. Battling with a dorm or library computer and printer is definitely not the ideal way to spend the five minutes of calm before an 8 a.m., though it’s often unavoidable. Having your own printer may seem like the answer to everything, but let’s face it, your roommates are neither going to appreciate the printer’s spurting and whizzing at 3 a.m., nor your cursing and urge to throw it into the wall when the printer decides to eat the paper.

Now for the average college student in the humanities, it goes without saying that over the course of four years there are going to be many essays, even more readings, and a series of never-ending paper jams.

In a survey of some students at Emerson College, those majoring in Writing, Literature, and Publishing tend to prefer the digital medium to print, citing the ease of access, lack of damage to the environment, and lower costs as the deciding factors. With not enough print credits given to college students, particularly those who will have to take at least four writing courses if not more, it’s quite taxing on the college student’s budget—and mind—to print so much paper.

81% of students asked at Emerson College prefer Digital over Print

With “Track Changes” or some other comment feature on every word processing tool, the digital age makes peer editing and reviewing seamless and hassle-free. There’s also no tension for the hasty editor whose writing becomes illegible as it stretches around margins and between the lines. While most agree that they enjoy tangibility of marking up a paper, the utter dismay at having to print 15 double-spaced, single-sided copies of a 12-page story for your fiction workshop is undeniable. About 62% of the college students asked print on average more than 10 pages a week, and at least 25% are printing more 20.

There is of course a deeper facet to this debate between print and digital. Among the millennial generations, environment continues to be one of the top issues of concern. “It’s better for the environment and generally eliminates waste,” says one WLP major at Emerson College, and this view is echoed by other majors as well. With rising concerns about global warming and waste, there’s a greater desire to use and reuse as much as possible.

It is interesting to note however, that students, when asked, prefer their readings to be printed, rather than digital, though they’d rather hand assignments online. Professors usually expect the exact opposite. For most teachers, paper assignments are easier to grade and edit than that its print counterpart, while readings can be left to the student’s discretion. Students, of course, prefer to receive their readings printed out for them for two main reasons. Primarily, photocopied pages are cumbersome to view online; the small text and flattened-book layout requires a lot of zooming and even more maneuvering. Essentially, it’s not compatible with every, if any, device to be read comfortably. The second reason is once again the cost factor. If printing must occur, it feels more justifiable for essays than it does for readings.

The cost of printing, in general, is an omnipresent concern for most students. A majority of Emersonians do their printing either on campus in the library and computer labs, or they have their own printer, occasionally shared between roommates. While the former seems to be a more cost-effective issue considering Emerson, like most schools provides print credits every semester, more than 60% of students say they’ve gone over the given amount in past semesters, while others expect it to happen in the future.

Another common factor students consider when choosing digital over print is one that is a bit unexpected, but nonetheless crucial in the pursuit of creating a beneficial learning environment. A number of students claimed that school work is “easier to keep track of” if they’re not dealing with piles of paper stuffed into binders. Keeping organized is the eternal struggle for the college student, but given the degree of comfort we have with managing several documents, internet tabs, and applications open, it’s understandable that having everything on one the computer really is easier to manage in comparison to the traditional binder and folder.

Every professor has a different policy, and each student has a different preference depending on the course and volume of paper required. It’s hard to cater to everyone, and chances are, the professor will take precedence, at least for the assignments. In general though, the consensus seems to be that students would rather submit everything digitally, and have the option of either doing the reading online or having a printed copy given to them. For the latter situation, several teachers already offer to post readings online, so it’s just a matter of keeping the option open to give print versions as well. For the former, one possible solution is perhaps for schools to give students more print credits, or set up a system where students taking essay-heavy courses can receive more money to print just for that particular semester.

Read other articles from our Student Voice column here. 

Suchita Chadha

Suchita Chadha

Suchita is a student at Emerson College, where she is pursuing a BFA in Writing, Literature, & Publishing for poetry with a Global & Post-Colonial Studies minor. She has been published in Verge Magazine (Canada) and Affairs Today (UK).