Tech Products and Discretionary Spending Advancing With College Students

According to the re:fuel 13th annual College Explorersurvey, 22 million college students heading back to the 2013-2014 school year this Fall control a massive $404 billion in total spending power, including $117 billion in discretionary purchasing and $287 billion in non-discretionary spending (tuition, room & board and school supplies). This represents a 12.5% jump in total spending and a 30% increase in discretionary spending during the last five years.

Tech Devices Owned by College Students (% of Students; Average Device Ownership= 6.9/Student)


% Owning

Laptop computer




Video game console


MP3 player




Digital camera


Flat screen TV


Desktop computer


Tablet computer


Handheld gaming system


Feature phone


Camcorder/video recorder






Source: re:Fuel, June 2013

Food reigns supreme among students when it comes to discretionary spending. 36% (or $42.1 billion) of total annual discretionary spending is dedicated to food purchased in grocery stores ($21.1 billion), at convenience stores ($7.9 billion) and in restaurants ($13.1 billion).

  • Automotive (including car payments, insurance, maintenance and gas) is the second largest category for student discretionary spending at $17.5 billion
  • Followed by apparel at $13.1 billion.

Despite the increase in online coursework, however, students continue to spend a significant amount of time on their college campus. On average, students spend 10.2 hours per day on campus during the week and 6.5 hours per day on weekends.

Students added one-half of a device to their arsenal of technology in this year’s study, bringing their total to an average 6.9 gadgets per student. Topping the list is the laptop, owned by 85% of students:

  • In the second slot for the first time, Smartphones are now owned by 69% of students.
  • Feature phone ownership has slid to 33% among this tech-savvy set
  • 68% own video game consoles
  • 67% own MP3 players  
  • 62% printers
  • 31% intend to purchase smartphones in the coming year, once again, are the frontrunners with 31% of students planning to acquire one.

And, students rely on their laptops for schoolwork:

  • 70% use them for research and coursework
  • 47% regularly employ them for classroom note taking
  • 33% of tablet-owning students regularly use them for work/research
  • 33% for taking notes
  • 37% for reading electronic textbooks
  • 13% of agile-thumbed students report using their smartphone for note taking

Students also embrace more traditional means of learning, with 79% of students taking notes with pen and paper, rather than with devices. Traditional printed textbooks continue to dominate despite sharp increases in tablet and e-book reader ownership. 59% of the 6.9 textbooks acquired each term are obtained in a printed format, compared to just 19% acquired digitally.

Nielson notes that "... it seems that highlighted passages, notes scribbled in margins and dog-eared pages are tried-and-true study methods that will last well into the 21st century..."

Students spend a significant amount of their daily 14.4 hours of multitasking across devices in pursuit of entertainment. 64% of students regularly watch TV in real-time on a television set, and 20% do so on computers.

  • Downloaded TV content is consumed primarily on computers (43%) and tablets (28%)
  • movies are consumed across devices with 51% of students watching movies on televisions, 52% doing so on computers and 30% of tablet-owners doing so on tablet devices
  • entertainment, including games (73%), music (67%) and social networking (64%) programs 64%, dominates the field

While 49% of students report daily usage of a second screen while watching television, their activities on those additional screens would be better described as multitasking. 63% are using Facebook or Twitter, 58% are surfing other online sites, 50% are playing games and 37% are doing school work.

"Showrooming," or the act of researching a product while in store, is quite popular, and influential, among mobile pupils:

  • 75% of students who own a smartphone or tablet report using it to conduct research while shopping in brick and mortar stores
  • 74% of them went on to purchase something at the store
  • 38% were motivated to shop somewhere else (whether that destination was on or offline)
  • 32% were influenced to purchase a different brand than the one they'd been considering

College students continue to be avid social network users, and Facebook is the clear leader with 86% of students reporting they use the site regularly. Twitter is  in second place at 38%. Instagram made a strong debut on the study with 30% of students reporting regular use. Google+ was the only site to show declining use, down to 29% from 32% last year.

How students use so-called "social" networks, is really not all that social, says the report:

  • 46% report that staying up to date with celebrity news is extremely/very important,
  • 36% say sharing links to their own websites/videos/blogs
  • 34% like staying up to date with brands (34%)
  • 29% share locations/activities with friends (29%)
  • Only 17% rate looking at friends' photos as extremely/very important
  • 16% place that level of importance on discussing information with friends
  • 16% say the same about staying up to date with friends.

32% of students say they avoid advertising on social media sites. Other ad types they consider intrusive are:

  • (32% avoid opt-in text messages,
  • 49% avoid non opt-in) or that block content (
  • 38% avoid pre-roll ads) are also among the most avoided ad types.

Among tactics more welcomed into students' lives, the study results find tactics that deliver value have the lowest levels of avoidance, such as:

  • Sampling efforts (just 15% avoidance)
  • Sponsored events (17% avoidance)
  • On-campus signage (15% avoid)
  • Campus newspaper ads (only 17% avoid)

Nielsen concludes that "... as students both expand and re-evaluate their social networks, they continue to make decisions on which information is important to them... which messages they'll welcome and which they'll avoid... Mom and dad, however, continue to be their main source of information, advice and approval throughout the college years... “

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