Why college students need to use a VPN – and how to pick the right one

While glam rocker Alice Cooper wasn’t referring to digital devices when he sang “No more pencils, no more books,” educational tools have changed considerably since “School’s Out” topped the charts nearly 50 years ago.

Today, students tote around laptops, tablets and smartphones – all of which are wirelessly connected to the Internet over Wi-Fi or 5G – providing access to online libraries, endless multimedia content and face-to-face video communication.

But with this digital revolution comes additional risks, such as malware (malicious software) and hackers, cyberbullies, stalkers as well as scammers and other bad actors who want to monitor your activity for financial gain.

Software like a Virtual Private Network (VPN), however, can help protect your privacy.

VPNs, which conceal your online identity by using encryption, are especially useful for college-bound kids using less-than-secure campus networks and free WiFi hotspots at coffee shops, public libraries and more.

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“Since there’s no way you can be sure that a WiFi router is secure, it makes sense to use a VPN for school, to keep your connection safe on shared Wi-Fi with fellow students and teachers,” says Daniel Markuson, a digital privacy expert at NordVPN, a leading VPN provider that’s been named a “top choice for the privacy-concerned” by Security.org.

And no, your browser’s “Incognito” or “In-Private” mode isn’t the same. Sure, this will scrub your browsing session of history, passwords and cookies after you’ve logged off, but your online activity is still visible, saved and could be shared or sold to third parties.

This means your activity is still visible to the Internet Service Provider (ISP), as well as to the organization that provides the Internet connection (such as a school or restaurant). The websites you visit may be able to view the session, too.

Why college students need to use a VPN – and how to pick the right one

Only a VPN can mask your browsing activity, offering true anonymity on the device you’re using it on.

And what if you don’t use a VPN? For starters, a virus could delete the essay you’ve been working on for days, apps may secretly lift info from your smartphone or you may see more phishing scam attempts from legitimate-looking emails.

Wait, so what’s a VPN?

Instead of browsing the Internet openly, which allows your activity to be monitored, a VPN changes your device’s IP address to ensure your surfing session is private.

An IP address is a unique numerical address, such as 192.185.2.1, that identifies a device’s (general) geographical location on the Internet.

“With your data encrypted, you don’t have to worry about potentially unsecured public Wi-Fi,” adds Markuson. “Even if your educational establishment has substandard router security, your personal information will still be safe.”

A few other student-centric advantages to using a VPN:

Bypass firewalls and censors. Some school networks use word-based firewalls to ban certain words or phrases and may include inoffensive words by accident. “A VPN allows you to circumvent these restrictions, to easily access the resources you might need for school projects,” says Markuson.

“Borrow” an IP address from another country. This allows students to access international materials to improve the reach of their research. An online library in Britain, for example, may not allow ebooks to be accessed by someone in the U.S., but with a VPN you can make it seem like you’re in London based on a server’s IP address from that city.

Safeguard your identity and sexuality. Connecting to college Wi-Fi “could be a real issue for students at certain institutions, where certain sexual orientations or gender identities are disapproved of,” adds Markuson. “With a VPN, individuals have the privacy to access online communities, support and other resources, without worrying about a university spying on them.”

Are VPNs legal?

Using a VPN is completely legal, as long as you’re not doing anything online that breaks the law.

It’s likely that your school, college or university will know you’re using a VPN, cautions Markuson, but not what you’re doing online. Some organizations may have rules against VPN use, while others will have no issue with it.

“If you’re worried about getting in trouble or violating school rules, we recommend discussing VPN use with a school administrator or a teacher,” Markuson adds.

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How to choose a VPN

OK, so you like the idea of a VPN, but notice there are hundreds of companies that offer them.

How do you choose which one is for you?

A few things to consider:

Resist from using “free” VPNs. They likely need to monetize their software somehow. Ironically, while VPNs are designed to provide privacy, your information may be monitored, recorded, logged, stored or passed to any third party. Ensure that company you go with has a strict policy against this.

NordVPN, for example, has been independently audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers to validate the company’s no-logging policy claim is accurate.

Put the price in perspective. Keep in mind, most premium VPNs costs less than a latte per month, so there really is no need to use free ones. Like other cybersecurity software, most VPNs are subscription -based and need to be renewed.

(A current NordVPN offer costs$3.30 a month for two years or a $4.92 per month for a 1-year plan. The software can be installed on up to six devices and used simultaneously.)

Research before you buy. Read reviews from both users and critics, for a well-balanced look at the quality of service you’re considering. For example, some VPNs may limit in how many servers you can choose from or how long you can stay on in any given session.

Check compatibility. Read up on which devices play nicely with a particular VPN and make sure all of your go-to devices are on the list.

Look for bonus features. Some VPNs offer extra services (sometimes as part of the same subscription price), like a password locker, so look for these extras, if they matter to you, to save money elsewhere.

How hard is it to reach a human? Don’t underestimate the importance of good tech support and customer service. Research which companies do this well – in case you ever need it.

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