Gmail is the most popular cloud computing email service in higher education.

Hedging about outsourcing campus eMail services to Google seems to have faded in higher education, as 61 of the top 100 U.S. colleges and universities now use Gmail.

Google announced that more than half of the country’s best institutions use the company’s popular eMail after U.S. News and World Report released its annual ranking of the top campuses.

“While this list of schools represents traditions of academic excellence that span centuries, these institutions also clearly recognize the importance and value of modern technology in academia,” Tom Mills, Google’s director of education, wrote in a blog post.

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There are now 14 million students, faculty, and staff members using tools from Google Apps for Education, according to the company.

The use of Gmail at some of the nation’s most venerated schools, including Brown, Yale, and Boston universities, marks a major change in the prevalence of cloud computing services in higher education, IT experts said.

Technology decision makers from campuses of all sizes have been wary in recent years to cede control of their college’s eMail services to Google’s servers – or any other cloud-based systems – often preaching data security over cost savings.

Just last year, many campus technologists said Gmail adoption would stall after a few high-profile hiccups.

Yale University’s switch to Google’s eMail system was delayed in 2010 when faculty members and administrators said they were concerned with the security of cloud computing, in which school eMail messages would be stored on off-campus servers.

Some Yale faculty also expressed concern with Google’s large carbon footprint, caused by its many energy-intensive data centers.

The University of California Davis ended a Gmail pilot program for faculty and moved its 30,000 student off of Google Apps in May 2010, citing similar security concerns.

UC Davis technology officials, including CIO and Vice Provost Peter Siegel, said in a letter to faculty that “outsourcing eMail may not be in compliance with the University of California Electronic Communications Policy,” adding that faculty who participated in a Gmail pilot said the campus’s commitment to privacy was “not demonstrated by Google and that the appropriate safeguards are neither in place at this time nor planned for the near future.”

The Campus Computing Project’s 2010 survey, unveiled in October at the EDUCAUSE educational technology conference in Anaheim, Calif., shows that campus technology officials at private and public four-year universities and public four-year colleges use eMail hosting services from Google for their campus eMail accounts doled out to students, faculty, and staff every year.

Nearly 60 percent of survey respondents from public universities who use eMail hosting services said their campus uses Gmail accounts, with 35 percent using Microsoft Outlook and 5 percent using Zimbra.

The disparity is even greater at private universities, where more than seven in 10 respondents said their school uses Gmail accounts, according to the research. Twenty-five percent said they use Microsoft.

Kenneth C. Green, founder and director of the Campus Computing Project, said outsourcing eMail for students is easier than doing so for faculty for two reasons: many students already have Gmail accounts, and “faculty resistance” to using a web-based service controlled by a company rather than the university still exists.

“eMail is no longer considered a rite of passage” for college students, Green said. “It’s much like having a cell phone and a phone number when you go to college. You don’t want to change [phones and numbers] when you get there.”

Campus IT officials said students are often the driving force behind campus-wide Gmail adoption, since so many have used Gmail – and related chat and video functions – as their personal eMail account for many years.

“Our students were really the ones that led us down the Google path,” said Geoff Greene, IT director of support services at Brown University, which converted to Gmail last June. “They knew these tools would work because they already used them in their non-school lives.”

Moving all campus eMail addresses to the web giant’s servers has proven overwhelmingly popular among students. Ninety-eight percent of Harvard students switched their eMail addresses to Gmail within a month of the university’s announcement that it would provide school Gmail accounts, according to Harvard’s website.

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