Laptop loan programs should be mandatory

Colleges have implemented a new mode of instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Hybrid classes allow students to experience the benefits of in-person instruction while minimizing the frequency of these meetings. Most colleges also offer a total remote option for students who could not make it back to campus this fall. These changes rely heavily on the use of technology. It is now more difficult than ever to navigate through college courses without a laptop.

Colleges fail to acknowledge the fact that many students do not have their own computers. COVID-19’s financial impact means that even more students will go without their own computers this year. Colleges should be required to offer long-term laptop rentals. It is nearly impossible to get through hybrid or fully remote courses without a laptop.

A 2018 study conducted by Indiana University examined how technology access impacts student achievement. Researchers found that students without laptops experienced stress and a decline in academic performance. It was also determined that students of color and those from low-income families were less likely to have access to reliable technology. Many of these students did not have their own computers and those who did used outdated or damaged devices. Out of 748 students surveyed, nearly 20%  struggled with these issues. 

This study was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to hybrid learning. I imagine the negative effects of limited technological access have significantly increased. There are new factors that students now have to cope with like Zoom classes that require functioning webcams and audio output. 

Most colleges have open computer labs and libraries where students who do not have their own computers can use these devices. These resources have been limited due to COVID-19. Many local libraries are either closed or offer very limited access. These restrictions place struggling students at even more of a disadvantage. 

According to NPR, Seattle’s Everett Community College is one of many institutions that have ceased on-campus operations amid the pandemic. These students do not even have access to libraries or computer labs provided on campuses that have remained open.

This is one of many examples of how laptops are now a need and no longer a luxury. These students rely entirely on long-term laptop rentals for access to the education they are paying for.

I empathize with students who are trying to navigate technology-reliant classes without computer access. I did not have a laptop my first year at NAU. I relied on on-campus computer labs and libraries. This may not seem like much of a burden, but scheduling computer access around classes, assignment due dates and library hours is difficult. 

Some would argue that a student can simply rent a laptop from their campus library. However, library laptop rentals typically only allow students to check out a device for up to three days. This service is not intended to provide long-term computer access to students who do not have devices.

For example, NAU offers laptop rentals for only 72 hours at a time. As someone who has used this service in the past, this does not serve as replacement for a laptop purchase. There are a limited number of laptops and it can be difficult to even get a device in hand. 

As the university’s newly implemented NAUFlex program requires computer access, NAU needs to develop a program that provides students with laptops for the duration of these hybrid classes.

NAU is coping with budget cuts and pandemic-related expenses. According to The Arizona Republic, NAU lost $100 million due to an enrollment dip. At first glance, long-term laptop rentals seem costly and impractical. 

There are efficient solutions that account for the changes in college budgets. Institutions that have successfully supplied laptops serve as a blueprint. 

Many colleges have partnered with businesses that refurbish laptops sourced from corporations and other suppliers, according to NPR. These laptops are sold to colleges at discounted prices. The refurbished laptops are then offered as long-term rentals to students. This is an option NAU could explore.

A student should not have to fear poor academic performance because they cannot afford a laptop. Colleges need to take this step to ensure equal access to technology.