Don Silvius, Support Specialist for Shenandoah University’s iMLearning program (right) and Tom Anderson, Assistant Director of Operation Support Services, say the program has likely impacted enrollment over the years

Apr 26 2022

How Higher Ed Institutions Are Meeting the Demand for Student Devices

Proactively addressing student device and connectivity needs can boost enrollment and inspire success in college and beyond.

When universities pivoted to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, devices became even more crucial resources — which, for some students, proved problematic.

An EDUCAUSE survey fielded the year before the pandemic struck found that although 99 percent of college students felt laptops were at least moderately important for academic success, 8 percent (potentially more than a million students) didn’t have access to one.

While many universities provided devices to some students before 2020 — typically loaning a Chromebook, Dell, HP or IBM laptop out for a fee — according to Roy Mathew, national higher education leader at Deloitte, the expanded use of online instruction has ushered in a new emphasis on device availability.

“The pandemic definitely increased the need for device programs,” Mathew says. “When everyone switched to online, students who used to rely on computer labs suddenly lost access to that. It highlighted the inequity that existed.”

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Enhancing Higher Education’s Value Through Device Programs

A number of schools have added device programs over the past two years to facilitate remote learning; however, furnishing students with laptops and other tech tools can provide additional advantages, such as helping them prepare for employment after graduation.

“It’s not just a technology device to get through the college experience,” Mathew says. “Almost every job right now requires some level of tech fluency or savviness. Making sure they’re prepared for the workforce in every possible way is the other benefit.”

To ensure schools are offering a level playing field from day one, students’ tech needs should be addressed as early as possible — ideally when they begin attending a university, Mathew says.

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With undergraduate enrollment having declined 6.6 percent since fall 2019, helping students save the thousands they’d have to spend on a computer could also serve as an incentive to attend a school — particularly if they’re already preparing to borrow a significant amount of money to finance their education.

“In recent years, if getting a device loaned to them for the duration of their stay was part of that offer letter, that was huge, and still is for a lot of students,” Mathew says.

Shenandoah University — which began handing out an iPad and MacBook to each undergraduate student and grad students in certain programs in 2010 — has received positive feedback about its iMLearning device program, according to Don Silvius, support specialist for the program.

In response to an incoming freshman survey question that asked if the program had affected students’ decision to choose the Winchester, Va., school, more than 70 percent said yes.

“It’s not only been good for the students but for the university, because enrollment has increased,” Silvius says. “In 2006, enrollment was between 3,000 and 3,500, and it’s now roughly 4,000. It looks like the program may have been a factor in the increase in enrollment, since it has grown so much in the past 15 years.”

Instead of focusing on financial need, a per-semester fee for SU’s device program is rolled into students’ tuition, Silvius says, even if they opt out. Students essentially lease the equipment and can keep it after they finish their education. If they graduate early, transfer to another school or leave for another reason, they can return the devices or buy out their lease, which are prorated.

After SU began including the Apple Pencil in its tech package when the stylus tool came out several years ago, a study the school conducted found the number of students who regularly used their iPads increased by 50 percent, Silvius says.

Today, Shenandoah students check lectures they’ve recorded on their iPads when notes they’ve taken in class are unclear; music production and recording technology majors who help with plays, musicals and concerts also use the devices to control the sound during shows.

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“In the very beginning, in the discussions and meetings the university had, it was all about mobility,” Silvius says. “It’s a lot easier to carry a smaller device around. You can download digital textbooks, keep your notes on it. Unless you’re typing a 25-page paper, you can pretty much do everything you need to do with the iPad and the Apple Pencil.”

The university was named an Apple Distinguished School, of which there are fewer than 700, something Anderson called “a testimony to what the faculty and students are doing with the technology.”

“To be able to integrate it at such a high level and get that recognition is very nice,” he says.

Warranties Help Make Device Use More Affordable for Students

Including a warranty for students’ iPads and MacBooks has helped Shenandoah curb repair expenses for all involved parties. Although AppleCare+ doesn’t fully cover some damage, students would only pay $99 to replace a broken screen, for example, instead of $600, says Tom Anderson, assistant director of operation support services.

“Accidents happen; screens get cracked, the keys break,” Anderson says. “None of the students are bringing in six-figure salaries, so it’s helpful to them. Offering AppleCare+ helps the school out too, because previously, there was a limit to the chargeback that would go to the student for the repair. The university would absorb the rest of the cost. AppleCare+ has put a cap in place that has saved the school some money.”

96%

The percentage of students who say access to Wi-Fi is an important technological element for studying

Source: library.educasue.edu, “2020 Student Technology Report: Supporting the Whole Student,” Oct. 19, 2020

Device Programs Give Students Equitable Access to Standard Tools

Last year, Cleveland State University launched the Summer Bridge Enrichment Academy — a three-week program designed to help ease the transition to college by allowing incoming freshmen to build relationships, learn about academic support resources and get acquainted with the higher ed experience by living on campus.

The Ohio-based school initially was aiming for 75 to 100 program participants, according to Presidential Faculty Fellow and Associate Provost for Academic Innovation Tachelle Banks; 133 ultimately attended. Only two, who had since moved to other states, didn’t start at CSU in the fall.

Along with the chance to take part in workshops and social activities, academy participants received Microsoft software licenses and Lenovo laptops at no cost — which they could keep, as long as they attended the university after the program.

“The program’s focus is student success and a quality student experience, but also mitigating barriers that tend to impact students’ decision to return to college semester after semester, and can impact their ability to graduate,” Banks says. “We have to make sure they have every resource available to ensure an equitable opportunity to succeed, and that includes technology.”

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While some students lacked computers entirely during the pandemic, other had outdated, slow devices that also caused issues that interfered with learning.

A fall 2020 EDUCAUSE survey found 19 percent of students had missed a remote course session or deadline because their primary devices wouldn’t work or couldn’t be accessed. Ten percent missed class due to their devices not being able to perform a necessary task for the course.

Some students also lacked adequate connectivity options — a challenge that isn’t exclusive to the pandemic. Forty-two percent of students living on campus said that getting an adequate internet connection can be difficult.

In general, more than a third of students (36 percent) struggle to find an internet connection that meets their academic needs at least some of the time.

Headshot of Roy Matthew
The pandemic definitely increased the need for device programs. It highlighted the inequity that existed.”

Roy Matthew National Higher Education Leader, Deloitte

To help make Zoom calls and other instruction possible, schools considered a variety of options, Deloitte’s Mathew says, including providing students in need with subsidized service from a local broadband company or supplying connectivity-enabling devices.

“Before the pandemic, you could connect to the campus Wi-Fi. You didn’t have to worry about having broadband,” Mathew says. “Now, many of these colleges have laptop and Wi-Fi loaner programs — the university gives you a device for a Wi-Fi hotspot at home, at least during the pandemic.”

CSU, which made donated and purchased computers available, also gave out connectivity-enabling devices during the pandemic to help students log on remotely, according to Claire L. Grantier, director of the school’s Center for Educational Technology.

“They had the option of checking out a hotspot if they didn’t have internet connectivity during COVID,” Grantier says. “That was across the university for faculty, staff and students.”

​California State University added Wi-Fi hotspot devices and unlimited data plans from two national carriers to its CSUCCESS free technology distribution program in November, which provides iPad Air, Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard Folio devices to incoming first-year and new transfer students at 14 of the higher ed system’s 23 educational institutions.

RELATED: How the University of Michigan upgraded to next-generation Wi-Fi access points.

The overall expense associated with device programs has, in the past, been a deterrent to offering them, according to Mathew. When the pandemic began, need prompted several schools to initiate programs. With students having just started in-person classes again at many universities, it’s unclear how many of the device initiatives will exist indefinitely. Some, Mathew says, are being discontinued.

“In almost every case, it’s a funding constraint,” he says. “Most universities are still trying to dig out of the deficit that was created during the pandemic. The tuition revenue was fine because everyone was online. All the other revenue — from housing, bookstores, campus life — pretty much came to a standstill for about a year or so.”

Education-related costs, however, remain a concern for students, as well. One in 5 who are enrolled in one of the largest public university systems in the country, for instance, are considered homeless, according to Mathew.

A laptop, or lack thereof, could significantly impact their performance — and be a factor into whether those students continue to pursue degrees.

Expecting them to purchase a $2,000 device, though, isn’t necessarily a realistic proposition, which underscores the important role universities can play in establishing device equity.

“If we’re putting that burden on you, we just exponentially increased your probability of dropping out somewhere along the way because you don’t have the financial means,” Mathew says. “That’s where this becomes important; making sure students stay and graduate as quickly as possible, and there isn’t this haves-versus-have-nots situation within the student community. Because there is a high probability they’re going to drop out if they feel like the campus experience is not one that’s conducive to their growth and positive development.”

LEARN MORE: Preparing for long-term success.

Photography by Ryan Donnell

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