Bridging the digital divide

How institutions are making tablets and laptops accessible to all students

A 2013 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations Report of incoming college students found that 78 percent have regular access to a mobile device. And while that number has probably crept higher for 2014, what about the approximately one in five college students who don’t have that access?

For many low-income and first-generation college students, owning a smart phone, tablet or laptop is simply not a reality. What is a reality is that this situation creates educational barriers for these students.

In fact, technology is so integrated into our society that students who do not have access can be at a disadvantage academically, socially and financially, says Brittania Morey, director of communications for the Iowa College Access Network (ICAN), which helps more than 300,000 students, parents and education professionals prepare for college each year.

“From an academic standpoint, not having access to technology can make basic communications, as well as research for projects, and even class discussions, more difficult,” she says. “From meal plans and course registration to financial aid awards, everything is based on technology.”

California State U, Monterey Bay

Tech Rental by the Numbers

      • Student savings: $550,000
      • Income from rentals: $59,000
      • Number of rentals since 2011: 2,000
      • Student employees: 2
      • IT Specialists: 1

And as the cost of higher ed continues to rise and financial aid support is limited, the access problem is only expected to grow, says Wendy M. Wallace, director of Student Support Services at Northern Arizona University. Her department is tasked with increasing retention among first-generation college students who demonstrate financial need and/or who have a documented disability.

“Providing adequate resources, including laptops or tablets, for low-income or Pell-eligible students can make the difference in helping a student become successful in the higher education arena,” says Wallace.

How can college and university leaders help bridge the gap in access? Experts and institutions that have made strides share solutions and challenges involved with providing tablets and laptops to underprivileged students.

A rental solution

In 2010, Congress approved $10 million to fund textbook rental programs, in an effort to make college education more affordable. It also triggered an “aha” moment for Arlene Krebs, director of the Wireless Education & Technology Center at California State University, Monterey Bay. Why not allow students to rent devices, too?, she asked herself.

With help from a $300,000 Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) grant, the CSUMB Tech Rent Store was born. Run separately from the university bookstore, it gives students a place to rent all kinds of technologies, including laptops, iPads, digital cameras, camcorders, pocket projectors, clickers, scientific calculators and more.

Rental periods can be as short as a day or as long as a semester. Krebs says many students have become dependent on the laptop rentals, which cost $120 per semester.

“A lot of our students are first-generation college students with migrant farm worker families, and a lot of them do not have computers,” says Krebs. “One of the biggest successes of the program has been renting students laptops and giving them the software they need on that laptop for completing a range of projects.”

At the start of this spring semester, the store—which has been operating since spring 2011—has had over 2,000 rentals, bringing in $59,000 and saving students $550,000 on technology purchases. Krebs says making a profit from the store was not a goal.

But it is now self-sustainable. The store generates enough income to support its activities as well as repairs and supplies. Salaries include two student employees who work about 12 hours a week, as well as an IT specialist who dedicates 20 percent of his time to the tech rental store.

CSUMB spread its grant budget out over the first three years to purchase equipment. The store also receives decommissioned state laptops that would otherwise have been recycled.

Loan programs

Another option is loaning laptops or tablets to students in need. Northern Arizona University’s Student Support Services serves, as part of the Federal TRIO programs, 440 students who are first-generation college, from low-income households, or have disabilities.

While the focus is on providing help through academic tutoring, course selection, career progression, financial aid, financial literacy education and graduate school preparation, the office also has a small number of laptops available for checkout.

“Only a handful of students utilize this service, some of whom have very limited financial resources and have been grateful to have access to a computer that they can use at home, between classes or while they might be traveling to a leadership conference,” says Wallace of NAU. “Additionally, NAU students can check out and use a laptop within the university library.”

Other institutions, including Seton Hill University (Pa.), Regis College (Mass.), and Rochester College (Mich.) have given away iPads or laptops, but these programs are broader—generally for an entire incoming class—rather than based on need.

The challenges

Of course, laptop and tablet rental and loan programs come with their own set of challenges.

“The federal grant that originally helped to start up this program now limits the structure of laptop loan programs,” says Wallace. Institutions have had to step in to support providing laptops for students in need.

At CSUMB, setting up the online framework for the store was the most challenging aspect, says Krebs. All reservations and transactions are done online, and her team had to do all the backend work on its own.

For schools that don’t have a grant to start their own rental store, Krebs says having startup capital, training students to run the store, and having the money to pay these employees are the biggest associated issues. The CSUMB Tech Rent Store employs two student work assistants each semester, and they essentially run the store, she says.

What’s ahead

The future may see laptop and tablet loans and rentals programs for underprivileged high school students as part of the college application process. Better access to technology could make it easier and quicker for students to fill out the FAFSA and hear back about their aid eligibility, says Morey of ICAN.

Similarly, many scholarship applications are now only available online, which is an obvious hindrance to students who don’t have access to a computer but would benefit the most from aid.

Lisa King, director of the Michigan College Access Network, says the technology barrier is apparent when underprivileged high school students are trying to complete applications, as online applications are free, and there is often a fee for sending in a paper application.

“While we embrace technology and understand this move, it does impact our high school students, particularly low-income students, as they consider which colleges to apply to,” she says. “It would be exciting to see colleges and universities renting technology devices to high schools during the application season to help with this barrier.”

Kristen Domonell is a former UB associate editor.

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