When school started at Loyola University Maryland last fall, the administration sent a welcome flier to the mailbox of every student living on campus.
By the end of the year, a third of those fliers were still unread. No one ever checked the boxes.
With the increasing reliance on email and social media slowing the flow of letters to a trickle — and many students ignoring what little comes through — officials at Loyola have scrapped the school's entire student mail system, ripping out 4,000 mailboxes in the campus' College Center over the summer.
In place of the traditional mailroom, they have designed a new system to meet another campus trend: The growing delivery of packages to students who now order everything from food to furniture online.
That makes sense to Kelly Lussier. The 20-year-old Loyola senior says her mailbox was almost always empty — "I don't even get junk mail." But she does get packages — two or three, she says, in a typical week.
Students at Loyola and elsewhere are at the vanguard of a national movement. Nationwide, flat mail fell from a peak of 213 billion pieces sent in 2006 to 177 billion in 2009, according to the U.S. Postal Service. Even as the population grows, officials say, volume will continue to decline, to 150 billion pieces in 2020.
"That's a trend that's all over, no matter the age group," says Yvette B. Singh, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service in Baltimore.
But she says the young are helping to drive the shift: "This generation ... they prefer to send a text message than sending a card or a letter."
Officials at other Maryland universities have also seen flat mail decline, but Loyola appears to be the first to do anything about it.
At the Johns Hopkins University, spokeswoman Tracey Reeves says, the volume remains high enough to warrant mailboxes. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, spokeswoman Dinah Winnick says, mail is delivered to students in their dorms, so there is no centralized system to revamp.
Officials at Towson University plan to renovate the student union in a few years, and spokeswoman Gay Pinder says the mail system will likely be addressed then. She says the university will take changing habits into consideration.
At Loyola, the focus is now on packages. Thanks in part to students such as Lussier — "It's silly of me to drive somewhere when I can order something and have it the next day" — officials say the volume of parcels has grown in recent years by 15 percent each semester.
That meant carts stuffed with boxes lined the hallway outside the mail center, where they could be stolen. Senior Zachary Peters said students could wait in line for a package for half an hour.
The volume was most apparent last winter, after snowstorms stymied the Postal Service for a few days. When deliveries resumed, Loyola campus services director Jen Wood says, "We just got slammed."
"We could barely handle what we were getting on a normal day, let alone the backup," she says.
The new mail center has more room for packages, a refrigerator for medicines and other perishable items, and a safe for valuables.
Flat mail now goes in slim plastic holders in filing cabinets to save space
When a parcel or letter arrives, the mailroom summons the recipient by email. Instead of waiting in line, the student swipes his or her university ID card at a kiosk, setting off a bell that notifies workers to bring the item to the counter.
Wood compares the system to the drive-through window at a fast-food restaurant.
One recent morning, the mail room was filled with packages from Bed Bath & Beyond, Amazon and Chegg, which rents textbooks. Many packages appeared to contain books. There was also a flat-packed coffee table.
Peters said he gets about one package per week.
"I order clothes online, mostly shoes, because I can get those cheap," he says. "My family sends me food, especially around finals week."
Loyola contracted Ricoh USA to provide the new system.
Wood says Loyola spent about $50,000 to tear out the old mailboxes and rehabilitate the space. She declined to say how much the university is paying Ricoh.
Renaud Rodrigue, Ricoh's national director of higher education, says Loyola is the first university in Maryland to use the system. Others nationwide include Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa., Emory in Atlanta, and Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I.
"Flat mail is really declining, and most colleges and universities are still utilizing the same system they've had in place for years and years," Rodrigue says. "The old mailboxes take up a lot of real estate."