More than a decade ago, the trend of colleges buying laptops for their students or partially subsidizing the cost was all the rage. Now, with the economy in shambles and students bringing more of their own technology to campus, some institutions are reevaluating their laptop programs.
In January, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro ended its requirement  that all students own a laptop. Although university officials held that the two-year-old requirement benefited many students, they cited the high cost of maintaining a financial aid program to assist students who could not afford their own computers as the main reason for abolishing it.
“Like everyone, we’re going through budget cuts, and we were looking to make vertical cuts,” said David H. Perrin, the provost, noting that the university will save about $700,000 a year in grants that would have helped Pell Grant-eligible students subsidize the cost of a required laptop. “We wanted to make vertical cuts where possible, instead of cutting everything across the board. We’re going to be using a portion of this money saved to protect essential services within the institution.”
For those 700 or so low-income students each year whose laptop purchases would previously have been aided by grant money, Perrin said there are a number of options. The institution still has contracts with two computer makers for purchase at a discount, though this was also the case before the requirement was dropped. Also, the college now has a number of laptop carts located around the campus, and students may check out laptops as needed.
Though UNC-Greensboro has dropped its overall requirement for laptop ownership, some of its academic departments are maintaining their own requirements. Perrin said he does not think this will generate too many obstacles for students. He noted that 90 percent of entering students this fall arrived with their own laptop. As a result, the requirement -- originally implemented in 2006 -- may have come too late to make a true difference on campus.
“We adopted it as part of a strategy to enhance the use of technology at our institution, while moving to a wireless environment,” said Perrin, noting that the university will continue to be outfitted for wireless technology even without the requirement. “Still, I think the reality is we were a few years late adopting it for it to be considered a true innovation.”
Sticking to Their Guns
Recent adopters of the laptop requirement, like Greensboro, lay the cost of purchasing a computer on top of students' other college expenses. This can present a challenge for the institutions as they try to help those students who cannot afford the extra cost. Early adopters of laptop requirements, however, often do not tag students with a large bill for a laptop, as most of these colleges buy all the computers with the help of a small technology fee, often already built into tuition.
Thirteen year ago, Valley City State University, in North Dakota, became only the second institution  in the country to purchase and provide laptops for all of its students and faculty. (It claims the University of Minnesota at Crookston was the first.) Though university officials admit that their “laptop initiative ” has had some bumps along the road, they argue that the benefits of a mobile campus have far outweighed the cost of the laptops.
Joe Tykwinski, Valley City State's chief information officer, said the laptop program has been so popular at the institution that he quipped, “We’ve purchased our last desktop.” Approximately half of the cost of the laptops -- more than $1 million annually  -- is paid for by students via a $499 technology fee  per semester.He added that the fee has increased by only 5 percent since the program’s inception. Though the cost of the hardware has gone down through the years, the costs of the support staff and increasing network capacity have increased, keeping the price tag relatively static through the years.
Despite the anecdotal success of having an all-laptop campus, Valley City States does not have any compelling institution-wide data to show that the computers have improved student success or outcomes. Tykwinski said the university has continued to build the technology infrastructure, showing a commitment to the program but leaving few funds for research. Still, he said officials do point to prior but isolated research when defending the program -- though it rarely has to make a case for maintaining it.
“Students and faculty come to Valley City State because of this program,” he said. “They don’t often question it. Still, we do self-reflect a bit. You have to have some data to support your commitment to something. Those who don’t, when things get tough, often don’t have the data to support their decision [to keep laptops].”
As part of its National Council Accreditation for Teacher Education evaluation , the university’s elementary education program conducted a longitudinal study revealing that student teachers with full access to laptops received higher marks in technological competence from their instructors than did those who did not have laptops. Tykwinski said the education department hopes to conduct further studies to show the benefits of laptop usage.
The Benefit to Low-Income Students
Other institutions with longstanding agreements to purchase laptops for students say their programs are too entrenched and serve too many low-income students ever to be abandoned. Northern Michigan University adopted its “laptop initiative ” in 1999 and has since folded the cost of the computer into every student’s tuition. Its officials argue that the absence of an additional technology fee constitutes an “institutional commitment” to the program and reflects the reality that this type of technology is as much a part of the curriculum as anything else.
Gavin Leach, vice president for finance and administration, said that Northern Michigan’s tuition  has remained the second lowest in the state, even with the cost of a laptop for every student included. Unlike in Greensboro, where almost all students bring a laptop to campus, he said that almost all the students who come to Northern Michigan chose to do so knowing they will receive the latest in computer technology. At an institution where between 35 and 40 percent of the students are Pell Grant-eligible, Leach said the university’s program serves a valuable purpose.
Leslie Wong, Northern Michigan's president and former vice president for academic affairs at Valley City State, echoed that sentiment. He said he expects geographically isolated colleges like his to continue their commitment to buying laptops for all students more so than many urban colleges.
“It does seem that laptop campuses with lower-income, more Pell-eligible and more rural students just seem to work better,” said Wong, pointing out that laptops have never been on the institution’s chopping block. “Our faculty’s support of this program has been evident in how we’ve approached budget planning over the past few years. Never once has cutting this [laptop] program made a single list. We’ve heard everything else but, including cutting our football team and getting rid of some departments.
"But this has really taken hold throughout campus. It’d be difficult to extract ourselves.”