What Happens When Low-Income College Students Borrow Free Laptops?

Higher Education

What Happens When Low-Income College Students Borrow Free Laptops?

By Rebecca Koenig     Nov 5, 2019

What Happens When Low-Income College Students Borrow Free Laptops?

When black students at the University of Michigan took to Twitter several years ago to critique campus policies and culture, one tweet in particular caught the attention of college administrators.

The post (perhaps one like this) described how alienating and awkward it can feel for a student to show up to class without a laptop. The university doesn’t require all students to own personal computers, yet many do, using them frequently during lectures to take notes or follow along with readings.

“With professors saying ‘Everyone take out your laptop,’ it was not an inclusive environment. It wasn’t equitable,” says Susan Perreault, director of student recruitment for the university’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

So the dean asked Perreault and Gretchen Kopmanis, technology services office manager and Mac team lead, to devise a pilot program that would help low-income students get access to laptops—and maybe even improve their enrollment and retention rates, too.

Affordability, or lack thereof, has recently been a hot topic at the University of Michigan. In 2017, a New York Times analysis found the institution had the highest median parent income of 27 higher selective public colleges, at $154,000. Last year, one student started a crowd-sourced document called “Being Not-Rich at UM” full of advice about how to get by on a modest budget.

“There’s a high population of high-income students here. Low-income students really feel out of place at Michigan,” says Camille Mancuso, a junior and the vice president of the Michigan Affordability and Advocacy Coalition student group. “There’s a lack of effort by the city of Ann Arbor and the university to address these issues.”

Indeed, this fall, Ann Arbor ranked second in a list of 50 college towns with the fast-growing rent prices, according to an analysis by apartment-search platform Zumper.com.

Most of the laptops the university recommends for students cost upwards of $1,000. To eliminate that cost, Perreault and Kopmanis decided to invite low-income admitted students to borrow a new, university-owned MacBook Air for their entire undergraduate career.

Students who participate pick up their borrowed computers on campus in the same way as students who purchase theirs. The arrangement doesn’t affect students’ financial aid packages, and it gives them the option to buy or return their laptops upon graduation. Because the laptops remain university property, they’re covered by the institution’s insurance in case of theft or damage.

“We try to make the entire experience be as unencumbered as possible.” Kopmanis says. “They feel like it’s theirs.”

The program targets admitted students, to try to convince them to enroll at the University of Michigan.

“The purpose of the program is to help us with recruiting and retention,” Perreault says. “Hopefully the laptop will help them enough with their studies that they’re able to stay and graduate and be successful.”

Since 2015, a total of 2,016 laptops have been distributed through the program. The first cohort of 159 students who received their laptops in 2015 just graduated, so the university is still analyzing whether the program made a difference in attracting them and helping them succeed. Of that 159, so far 53 students purchased their laptops and 71 returned theirs upon graduating.

Interviews with participating students revealed that many were surprised, relieved or skeptical to receive invitations to borrow laptops. When Mancuso was invited, she was excited, she says.

“I was worried about getting one,” she says. “Already paying out-of-state tuition, it was another cost my family didn’t have to incur.”

Mancuso uses her borrowed laptop to take notes in class, write assignments, send emails, post on social media, log the hours she works at the university career center and as a tour guide and more.

“Every aspect of my world as a student, I use this laptop in some way,” she says. “It’s been very useful, very helpful.”

 

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