In the beginning, there was Apple.
“At one point, the Mac was the hot box on campus, for those of us who have gray hair,” said Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project , which studies the role of technology in higher education. “Apple has now tried to position itself as the hot box again.”
Apple’s chief financial officer, Peter Oppenheimer, announced  last week that the company is emerging from its best back-to-school quarter ever for its higher education division, with shipments of Mac portables increasing 49 percent from last year within the sector, the increase driven, Oppenheimer said, by sale of the MacBook and Apple's successful back-to-school promotions.
While Dell continues to grow and remains the overwhelming powerhouse on college campuses, Apple, which rapidly lost its market share on campuses in the 1990s, is now quickly expanding its presence at colleges and universities, according to experts who track both student purchasing and institutional trends. The rise of iTunes and the iPod, Apple’s marketing coup of positioning itself as an especially hip brand, and an overall increase in laptop purchases, a sector in which Apple proves particularly strong among college-aged buyers, all contribute to the trend, said Eric Weil, managing partner of Student Monitor , a national group that tracks college students’ consumer habits.
“If we look at ownership and purchase intent, among those students who plan to buy a new notebook, naturally No. 1 is Dell, but No. 2 is Apple. Which is huge. If we went back five years ago, IBM’s ThinkPad owned that spot. And now the average student doesn’t know what a ThinkPad is,” said Weil, who added that laptop ownership has nearly tripled what it was five years ago when ThinkPad sat securely on the silver medal platform.
A spring 2006 Student Monitor survey of 1,200 full-time four-year undergraduates at 100 campuses found Apple squarely situated as the No. 2 preference among the 19 percent of college students -- equivalent to 1.1 million people nationwide -- planning to purchase a computer within the next year. Among those students planning to buy a desktop, 41 percent said they planned to buy Dell and 13 percent Apple, with other companies, including Gateway, HP and eMachines, close behind Apple, with 9, 7 and 6 percent of the pie respectively.
Among those buying notebooks -- which 68 percent of students who said they would buy a computer within the next year planned to purchase -- Dell is still the leader, with 40 percent planning to buy Dell laptops. But Apple, with a 21 percent share, has no close competitor for second-place: HP and Sony Vaio, the next-largest players in the market, have just 6 percent of the share each, Weil’s data shows.
Preferred provider agreements between colleges and computer companies, in which institutions enter into agreements (oftentimes with more than one computer company) to recommend or market a particular product, are changing accordingly. Green said that the proportion of four-year public research institutions with preferred provider agreements with Apple increased from 58.9 percent in 2005 to 66.7 percent in 2006, while the percentage of private research universities with Apple agreements jumped from 50 to 60 percent. Gains among public and private four-year colleges were smaller, at about two and three percentage points respectively, said Green, who mentioned that he thinks the price differential between comparable PCs and Macs, traditionally more expensive, may have fallen, increasing Apple's desirability within the college student market.
Those numbers can’t be misinterpreted, however, to undermine Dell’s prominence in the arena. As Apple increased its share of provider agreements, Dell did the same by comparable or greater proportions, except among private research institutions, where the percentage of universities with Dell agreements dipped slightly by about one percentage point. But the percentage of public research institutions with Dell agreements increased from 69.7 percent in 2005 to 81 percent in 2006, and the proportion of public and private four-year colleges with Dell agreements increased by about 9 and 5 percentage points respectively, Green said.
Dell continues to grow in the education market, its spokesman, Dean Kline said, and Apple's rise has not come at Dell's expense. "One of the reasons why Dell has been very successful in education is of course the value of the industry standard technology we provide. We’re able to play across the entire portfolio of products if you will, from one end of the higher education market to the other."
Kline cited Dell's strength in offering standardized services for the four different computing sectors within the higher education market: student, administrative, academic and research computing. “Technology purchasing for higher education goes well beyond the student computing piece. That said, Dell continues to see successes in the student computing program," he said.
“Apple had gone down so far that a large increase in sales still doesn’t take them to anywhere near where Dell is, but I think they’ve made an awful lot of progress,” said David Sobotta, a former director of federal sales and higher education manager for Apple who now writes a blog  on Apple issues. “Apple pulled back from higher ed very strongly in the mid-90s; it really, really hurt them at some of the mid-tier schools.”
“Dell is pervasive,” Weil said. “Dell is about price. Dell is about convenience, and I certainly wouldn’t want to minimize the image of Dell.”
“But there’s an element that everything that Apple does is cool.”
In a culture that divides itself among Mac and PC people, Mac has emerged among students as the cooler of the two types of people to be, many observers say. Apple's association with the iPods that students always have close to their ears -- and their hearts -- has helped lead music-loving college students toward the brand. Proof of that is no further away than a favorite student hang-out spot these days, Facebook .
In July, the social networking Web site announced  a joint back-to-school promotion effort, with Facebook pledging to give away 10 million 25-song music samplers from Apple’s iTunes. The promotion helped lure 523,000 students to the Facebook group Apple sponsors, which links to Apple education discounts, while about 3,200 are signed up for Dell’s sponsored group.
“It’s the silver laptop with the apple on top,” Dianne Lynch, dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, said of the appeal of Apple. For the first time this year, entering freshmen in the communications school had to purchase a laptop -- and they had to purchase a MacBook Pro.
Lynch, who used to write a column on women and technology for ABC News, said the school’s faculty chose the model because it can utilize both a Macintosh and a Windows operating system, but the coolness factor is an added bonus. “We love the idea that we’re cool and that the program is cool and that we get it, but we wouldn’t have done this just for the cool,” Lynch said, citing the “outstanding multimedia software package” already installed on the computers.
At Princeton University, probably about 25 percent of publicly available machines are Macs, and 75 percent are Dells, said Steven Sather, associate chief information officer for the office of information technology. Sather, who said the information technology department attempts to mirror student buying habits in its purchase of institutional computers -- but of course is likely to fall behind if consumer preferences change quickly -- said that while Dell still has the majority, he’s seen a steady growth in Apple sales over the past five years. Student sales conducted by Princeton’s information technology department this year were 55 percent Dell and 45 percent Mac, compared to 38 percent Mac the year before.
For Sather’s part, he said he doesn’t advocate one over another -- and he doesn’t fall into easy Mac or PC categories, with both a MacBook and a Dell Latitude on his desk. “I don’t even know which way I’m going to turn, right or left, when I hang up.”