Before portable electronics became a staple of college life, students owned little more than the books on their backs. These days, they bring...

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Before portable electronics became a staple of college life, students owned little more than the books on their backs. These days, they bring arsenals of pricey gear to school.

Consumer advocates and insurers advise protecting belongings with an appropriate insurance policy, assuming they are items that would be tough to replace financially. In some cases, a parent’s existing policy might extend to the student. In others, renters’ insurance makes more sense.

“When I went to college, I had a calculator and a hot pot, but kids today have expensive, high-tech gadgets such as laptops [and] iPods,” said Linda A. Watters, Michigan’s insurance commissioner.

“It would be devastating for them to lose their possessions in the event of a fire, theft or other unexpected accident,” Watters said.

Students who live in dorms typically are covered by their parents’ homeowners’, condo or renters’ insurance. Students who live off campus may be protected, too.

The first step before buying any new coverage: Check what you have.

While preparing to start school at the University of Chicago last year, Zach Layng, 19, of Seattle, knew he’d bring the essentials: “I had a laptop, a personal organizer, camera, iPod, generally the usual college kid stuff,” including a bike.

Anti-theft tips

• Leave expensive jewelry back home.

• Always lock doors, even when just leaving for a few minutes.

• Engrave electronic items with your driver’s license number and home state, to help police track property if it is stolen.

Source: The Insurance Information Institute

His dad, Joe, 56, thought, “Those things could add up.”

Joe Layng considered renters’ insurance but then recalled a conversation with his insurance agent about possessions covered outside the home. Turns out, his son was set.

Bob Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C., suggests that parents assess their child’s possessions and talk with their insurer.

Their belongings might not warrant additional insurance, Hunter said. Or, for expensive items that aren’t covered, parents may buy a rider, which offers extra protection.

Elizabeth Breen, 44, of Solvang, Calif., said she didn’t check her homeowners’ policy after seeing how inexpensive it was to buy her son a policy before he started school at Northeastern University in Boston this year.

She chose a $4,000 policy for about $100 a year with a $50 deductible for her son.

“This is the first step for these kids, or young adults, to becoming independent,” Breen said. “You need to take certain steps as an adult. … To me, it was part of a process of setting up independence.”

Many colleges encourage buying renters’ insurance, and some require it, as do some off-campus landlords.

According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a group of top state regulators based in Kansas City, Mo., renters’ insurance premiums average between $15 and $30 monthly. Deductibles, payout and limits vary.

“Shopping around always makes sense,” said Jeanne Salvatore, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade organization in New York.

The company that insures the family’s house or car might offer a discount. There are also insurers that cater to students, marketing renters’ policies as “student insurance.”

A break-in inspired Jessica Koscielniak to insure her property.

During her freshman year at Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., her camera equipment was stolen from her apartment — a bad break for a photojournalism student.

Koscielniak, now a 22-year-old senior renting a room in a house, recalls that while her parents’ policy handled the loss, she thought it best to get her own renters’ policy. That way, her parents wouldn’t have to claim a loss on their insurance and run the risk of higher premiums.

“It definitely gives me peace of mind,” she said. The possibility of loss is “scary, especially when you use this stuff every day. You rely on it.”