Colleges consider laptop requirement for students

All students at public universities and community colleges in Massachusetts could be required to own laptop computers if the state legislature approves a plan devised by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education’s Internet Technology task force.

“The thought was that computer literacy skills would improve with greater access to computers,” said Ken Smith, an academic policy analyst with the Board.

According to Smith, the framework’s approval is conditional on a “rational and acceptable” funding plan. The board staff will determine implementation strategies before the framework is voted upon by the state legislature, Smith said.

The task force was created to address weaknesses in public universities’ computer information systems, science and technology programs. It includes representatives from education, industry, labor and government, Smith said.

“This is a proposal designed to create opportunity,” he said. “If a student already has a desktop, they are not going to be forced to get a laptop.”

He said the task force is looking at possible contracts with private companies to offer laptops at a discounted price.

“Financing of the plan has not been determined yet,” Smith said.

Wake Forest University, the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill already have such a policy in place, he said.

Students at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management also are required to own a laptop computer. The policy began in 1997 as a means to minimize the amount of computer setup for students, said Lida Miller, student computing manager for Kellogg’s information systems.

Kellogg arranges for students to purchase a certain laptop that fits the requirements. Students are not required to buy the recommended laptop but do need to have one that is comparable, Miller said.

If students are eligible for financial aid, they have a technology allowance in their package.

Kellogg requires laptops because “mobile computing is very desirable even though laptop dependability is not as good as that of desktops,” Miller said. “Also, students can bring their computers to the help desk and they can provide hands-on support.”

Miller said supporting the 1,800 laptops in the Kellogg community is an expensive task. Maintaining resources for all of NU’s undergraduates would create an even greater financial challenge for the university.

Mort Rahimi, vice president for information technology at NU, said the university has considered a laptop requirement in the past but decided it was unnecessary because more than 95 percent of the undergraduates at NU already own computers.

“We will review the policy again, but it doesn’t seem to make sense,” Rahimi said. “It is difficult to say there is one type of computer that everyone must have.”

Weinberg senior Gabriela Rodriguez did not own a computer for her first two years at NU and said it would be beneficial for NU to allow financial aid to cover computer purchases.

“It is impossible to live without a computer,” Rodriguez said. “Students should have the option of being subsidized for a computer if they come from low-income families.”

But Rodriguez said she would not support a laptop requirement. “It is already difficult for lower-income students to pay for books and this would simply be another form of discrimination.”