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3 insights to inform laptop program design and administration for IT leaders

Last spring, colleges and universities quickly learned that some students were not equipped with the right technology to make the transition to online learning due to COVID-19. IT units then scrambled to loan laptops and other devices to wanting students. In preparation of online or hybrid learning Fall semesters, institutions like Bowdoin University and UC Berkeley proactively sent laptops or tablets to students. While COVID-19 may have driven colleges and universities to run these one-time, pseudo-laptop programs, it has also prompted institutions to contemplate the utility of these programs long-term.

In an age where laptops are arguably a student’s most important educational tool, institutions are witnessing firsthand how laptop programs address student access and equity issues. As such, higher ed may be shifting towards a model in line with K-12 schools, where technology like laptops is treated as an essential need and is often provisioned by schools. Fortunately, modern technological capabilities have significantly reduced the price and burden of administering laptop programs.

We analyzed laptop programs that pre-date COVID-19 and discerned three insights to inform how colleges and universities should design and administer laptop programs.

1. Determine program eligibility based on campus equity needs and priorities


Laptop programs typically fall within one of two categories:

  1. ‘Universal’ or institution-wide distribution of laptops
  2. ‘Needs-based’ distribution to low-income students

‘Universal’ laptop programs provide blanket equity despite the larger undertaking. Seton Hall University and Northwest Missouri State University have institutionalized this ‘universal’ laptop offering and established it not only as a campus equalizer but a potential draw for incoming students.

In contrast, ‘needs-based’ programs only provision laptops to select low-income students and, due to their smaller scale, cost less. For example, IT leaders at the University of Michigan (UM) knew that most of its students could afford their own personal devices but wanted to ensure that students who could not were provided one. In collaboration with the Office of Financial Aid, UM notifies incoming students who fall under a set family income cap that they are eligible to receive a free laptop as part of its Undergraduate Laptop Program (ULP).

Fund laptop programs through student fees or institutional funds

Financing remains the biggest hurdle to implementing laptop programs, and mechanisms vary depending on if a program is universal or needs-based. Universal laptop programs are typically financed entirely through student technology or laptop fees paid each semester, often totaling around $1000 over the course of a student’s college lifecycle. For example, Northwest Missouri State University funds its program through a portion of its $23.30 per credit hour Student Technology Fee, which is charged over eight semesters, whereas Seton Hall University finances its program through a $275 per semester laptop fee charged to freshman and sophomores. Vendor discounts from bulk purchasing allow institutions to provide laptops at a rate still more affordable to students than if they acquired a laptop on their own, and distributing the cost across all semesters reduces one of many high upfront costs students pay for supplies when they first matriculate.

In comparison, needs-based laptop programs avoid placing a financial burden on students and instead rely on internal funding. As such, the University of Michigan solely funds the ULP through the Office of the Provost and works closely with the Office of Financial Aid to ensure the laptop cost does not impact student’s financial aid package.

Many institutions are now operating in a more fiscally constrained environment with high levels of scrutiny on the cost of education to students. Therefore, college and university IT leaders must emphasize the benefits of laptop programs to justify initial and ongoing funding through analysis of utilization data and satisfaction surveys.

2. Reduce program administration burden through four key attributes

Although adding a laptop program will require support, IT leaders have adapted their programs over the years to reduce administrative burden through the following tactics:

First and foremost, the volume of distributed laptops chiefly influences the capacity required to administer them. Needs-based programs, which provide laptops to many fewer students, require substantially less IT capacity. For example, Northwest Missouri State University employs 2.5 FTEs for its universal program to manage laptop preparation, support, and repairs for around 6,000 devices year-round. In contrast, the University of Michigan’s needs-based program employs only one FTE in the Office of Enrollment Management to run most of its administrative operations, and technical support for program laptops has only required incrementally more effort for central and distributed IT units across campus.

Touchscreen laptops, tablets, and sealed units are harder to service and find replacement parts for. IT units can become certified to repair Windows, Lenovo, HP, etc. laptops, whereas Macs, tablets, and other sealed units require more expensive service contracts.

See the laptop models provisioned at Northwest Missouri State University here and Seton Hall University here.

Historically, preparing and distributing laptops has been the most intensive aspect of administering laptop programs. Northwest Missouri State University sped up its packaging time after it switched from in-house distribution and began outsourcing its packaging and boxing processes, namely, asset tagging and bulk packaging.

Customizing software provided on laptops to students often bogs down IT units for little added benefit. Provisioning laptops with the same base applications streamlines subsequent support and repair and provides students an “out-of-the-box” experience they will appreciate.

Seton Hall University disburses all laptops loaded with little more than Windows 10. Students can install all base software and applications on their new laptops through Microsoft 365, eliminating the need for IT staff to do so on each laptop.  Furthermore, Seton Hall also lets students request access for and download any specialty software like SPSS or Mathematica through Microsoft Intune remotely.

It is still worth noting that customizing laptop options based on students’ academic program may improve students’ experience, but these exceptions should be kept to a minimum. For example, despite Seton Hall’s broad standardization efforts, students in certain academic programs, such as in the arts and interactive multimedia, are eligible for a Mac or convertible tablet.

3. Coordinate with key academic and business partners to ensure effective and financially sustainable programs

Despite IT’s leading role in administering laptop programs, the most successful ones require a cross-functional effort to tailor programs to student needs and to finance them sufficiently and within regulations. As such, IT units should collaborate with the following four academic and business partners to administer programs successfully: 

Academic Deans and Departments

Collect Tech Requirements from Academic Units: Consult deans and teaching and learning units to determine the laptop models and software to provision given students’ academic needs and institutional budgetary limitations.

Enrollment Management

Align with Enrollment’s Support Strategy: Work with Enrollment Management to ensure programs align with other support mechanisms and services for students, especially needs-based programs.

Finance and Student Accounts

Manage Funding with Finance Partners: Finance and Student Accounts allocate institutional finances to procure laptops and equipment for programs and manage student fees to recoup costs.

Financial Aid

Ensure Compliance with Financial Aid: Financial aid partners ensure needs-based laptop programs comply with institutional and legal rules to avoid inadvertently negatively impacting students financially.

Snapshot of select leading laptop programs

The below table highlights program attributes of three profiled institutions.

    Institution    Seton Hall University    Northwest Missouri     State University    University of Michigan
ProgramMobile Computing ProgramNorthwest Laptops ProgramMichigan Undergraduate Laptop Program (ULP)
Year Founded199820042014
Managing UnitDepartment of Information TechnologyOffice of Information TechnologyOffice of Enrollment Management
EligibilityAll full-time undergraduate students and graduate students in specific graduate programsAll full-time undergraduate studentsSelection of newly admitted students based on financial aid package
Funding$275 laptop fee per semester (four semesters total)Portion of $23.20 per credit hour Student Technology FeeOffice of the Provost at no cost to students
Laptops ProvisionedLenovo ThinkPad; Apple MacBook AirHP ProBookApple MacBook Air
Laptop OwnerStudent after sophomore year and payment of feesInstitution retains ownershipStudent after first term completion

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