Aug. 5, 2020
Each week, additional colleges are notifying their students that classes will move online for the Fall 2020 term. In moving to virtual instruction, the “college experience” will be radically changed; certainly, students will lose out on late-night dorm conversations and in-person access to professors. Beyond that, for the 10 percent of college students without a computer, the virtual classes themselves could be inaccessible.
Fortunately, all colleges and universities can enact an straightforward fix to get every student a hotspot and a laptop. Colleges can adjust student financial aid packages to enable students to accept donated technology, and to use federal student aid to cover the costs of computers and internet access. Specifically, a school can adjust its cost of attendance (“COA”) to include laptops and internet access as “required” alongside textbooks and other standard supplies, thereby enabling students to receive the critical technology. Individual college financial aid offices can make this change immediately and independently — without involving the Department of Education.
As background, each school sets their own COA, which is a college's "all in" sticker price, and this number is one of the most determinative aspects of a student's college financial aid package. Outlined in the Higher Education Act of 1965, the COA has a legally defined list of components depending on the type of student, course of study and institution. For a student at any given institution, that school's COA is a critical number — it represents the top limit for the grant aid a student can accept to attend a school and the limit for how much a student can borrow in low-cost loans from the federal government to support their education. Financial aid offices can adjust COAs for their students at any time during their college careers.
Enabling students to accept donated technology—or to accept scholarships, grant aid, and federal student loans to purchase computers and internet access—means schools must require this technology and raise the COA for their students accordingly. Even though the costs for this plan could be borne by students (or philanthropic actors), it seems that most colleges and universities have yet to identify or pursue this option. We reviewed the websites of a sample of 65 colleges and universities to understand the information provided to students in need of computers or internet access. Of these institutions, only one—Georgia Tech—highlighted the COA laptop solution on its financial aid page, noting that students “may request to have a one-time adjustment up to a maximum of $1,100 added to their Cost of Attendance for purposes of determining his or her eligibility for student financial assistance.” Practical and compassionate, the school provides clear details about the process and whom students should contact to start the process.
Among the other 64 schools we sampled, we found loaner programs, a few emergency aid applications, unclear “contact Department [X]” instructions, computer labs open by appointment, or nothing at all. For internet access, many schools are encouraging students to drive to campus and access WiFi from a parking lot; this is particularly critical in rural settings where hot spots may not get reception inside students’ homes. Other schools offered links to news articles, press releases, or statements from the FCC, many of which are now out of date, either because the promotional offer ended or the protection time period ended. (Additional schools are offering daily raffles to win a laptop, which is one solution but hardly an equitable one.)
The best and most equitable answer for students would be for schools to make this COA adjustment and then provide them with hotspots and computers for the year. For example, Bowdoin is issuing iPad Pros to students, and cellular data connectivity will be “activated and covered by the College for those students who have internet connectivity needs.” Schools with fewer resources can (and should) pull inventory from their empty computer labs and lounges closed due to COVID. (Note to private sector companies: Consider adopting your local community colleges and offloading your tech inventory.)
If an institution cannot provide laptops or other technology, the COA adjustment solution will enable students who have yet to max out their federal student aid to access federal loans or grant aid to pay for a computer and internet access. While this option pushes the cost onto students, students cannot be successful in their online classes without internet and computer access; technology access is equally essential to the traditional books and supplies included in a school’s COA. Most financial aid does go to “direct costs” of tuition, so many (if not most) students will need loans to purchase technology necessary for attending their virtual classes.
The import of this discussion extends beyond whether under-resourced college students this fall earn As or Cs in Biology 100; students unable to access online classes at home may elect to drop out of college. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, 37 percent of community college with federal loans who enrolled, but did not earn a credential, defaulted on their loans; in contrast, only 9 percent of community college borrowers who earned a certificate and 6 percent of those who earned an associate degree defaulted. Dropping out of college poses a serious long-term financial risk to students — and to the health of the federal government's student loan portfolio.
For colleges and universities, the risks are perhaps more serious. The financial impact of even a 10 percent drop in enrollment could push teetering schools off a fiscal cliff, driving layoffs and closures at institutions around the country. While schools are struggling to manage public health risks, rising rates of food and housing insecurity among their student population, and numerous other challenges, they must take on this issue of technology access on behalf of their students. Fortunately, colleges and universities do not need to wait for leadership in Washington to solve this problem. The connectivity solution for college students is available now.