Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Is "free" really worth it?

People often rave at the idea of something being available for free. Sometimes, it works out to be a good deal, but oftentimes, receiving a service for free can actually pose a greater inconvenience than it would be if such a service were available for even the smallest fee.

One example of this inconvenience is the computer lab at my college’s (FSU) main library. When I was there, students had access to computers, which I will estimate to be anywhere between forty to sixty units with office, design, and programming software along with internet access. There were approximately three to four laser printers available for printing. Users supposedly had a printout limit of 50 pages per day, which would be provided at no cost.

During the school day, students would often have to wait in line to gain access to a computer, despite there being 40-60 units available. When I would use the computer lab to print out papers and such, I would end up standing in the print line for several minutes. (The clerks would stand by the printers, separate all of the documents, and then lay them on the counter for users to pick up). Some of the long wait was simply the result of student waste of resources. The ink and paper were “free,” so students decided to print out their professors’ 40 slide PowerPoint lectures and long articles from the internet. Some of these items would sit on the counter and never be claimed, so the clerks would oftentimes throw items away. After the long queue, my document would finally come out of the printer, and I could finally be on my way (probably running to class to turn in the paper).

During my last year in college, the university decided to levy a charge of 5 cents per page in the computer lab, which would be collected through the smart chip on our student IDs. Note that this charge is cheaper than the typical price of copying at Kinko’s or your favorite office store (7 or 8 cents per page). Furthermore, it is significantly cheaper than printing something from a computer at Kinko’s, where you have to pay a per minute charge for computer use as well as a print fee that is more than the fee for using a copy machine.

This nominal charge of 5 cents per page caused a dramatic drop in computer lab use, at least in the times I needed to use the lab after the change. Instead of waiting in line to use the computer, I could just walk in. When I needed to print something, my document was on the counter when I got to the clerk’s desk.

Although it was cool to be able to print items for free from the library computer lab, I did lose a lot of time waiting around for a computer and/or printout, which didn’t help me when I was rushing to print in between classes.

So, was this “free service” really worth it? No.

P.S. I wonder how empty the school’s urgent care clinic would have been if they charged a $2 fee per visit.

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