As classes move online, colleges ramp up laptop loaner programs

College information technology departments are rapidly expanding their laptop loaner programs to connect students with needed devices as the coronavirus pandemic pushes fall courses online, NPR reports. According to a 2019 EDUCAUSE study, approximately one in 10 U.S. college students do not have access to a laptop. 

NPR says that number may be even higher this year as family members find themselves competing for shared devices as they work and learn from home. Moreover, COVID-19-related campus closures have displaced many students who previously relied on campus libraries for devices and internet connectivity. 

‘We’re realizing it’s really a must-have’

“A lot of people still felt laptops were a luxury as opposed to a must-have. Now we’re realizing it’s really a must-have,” said Tim Rager, head of the IT department at Everett Community College in Washington state. Since the start of the pandemic, Everett’s loaner device inventory has grown exponentially, from 50 laptops to more than 1,100. 

Meanwhile, South Carolina-based Benedict College, a small historically Black college, has purchased devices for its students, about one-fourth of whom do not have a laptop. “COVID-19 has certainly caused us to really look deeply at our demographic,” Benedict President Roslyn Clark Artis told NPR. “It has certainly taught us that there are challenges our students face that we either have become numb to or perhaps truly did not appreciate.”

Getting creative to increase access

Other institutions, like the University of Southern California, are working with outside vendors to procure and loan out laptops, anticipating that the surge in demand is temporary and will fade when the pandemic ends. “As the need grows, we don’t want to just keep buying more computers, because then what happens when there is a vaccine, and now we’re stuck with 600 computers,” Joe Way, director of USC learning environments, told NPR.

Given the expense of providing devices, some experts are urging financial aid offices to bake laptop and internet access expenses into official cost-of-attendance calculations, so students can use federal student aid to cover them. “If schools cannot pay for the tech directly, this is the fastest available option for increasing access,” wrote philanthropist and higher education advocate Abigail Seldin. 

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