Educational success today increasingly depends on access to technology. Gone are the days of paper and pencils, spiral notebooks, and heavy textbooks. Instead, students use computers to follow along in class, carry out research, and complete assignments. Digital books, web-based exams, and cloud storage are now the norm.
For all college students — but especially online students — a computer or laptop is essential. With each year, the number of students participating in online education climbs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an estimated one-third of all college students enrolled in at least one online course in 2017. The NCES also reports that for the same period, one out of every six college students were exclusively online students.
A prospective online student without access to a computer or laptop that meets minimum tech requirements clearly faces an obstacle to enrollment. However, the average cost of a student laptop today runs about $1,000, with the low end at $199, and the high $1,799. For many students, this could prove an obstacle that delays or derails college plans. Fortunately, an increasing number of schools are taking steps to remove this barrier.
Programs that provide free laptops or cost-effective options for financing a laptop are growing in number. Some schools rent equipment or offer laptops and tablets at specially discounted prices. All these education programs share a common goal: to make portable computers accessible and help college students manage the high cost of using such equipment.
How to Get a Free Laptop for College
In addition to programs that offer free or financing options for laptops, students may also apply to special scholarships or grants designated for technology that essentially provide a free laptop, as such monetary awards equal gift aid. For example, Wake Forest students receiving financial aid are eligible for a technology grant that they can use to pay for a standard tested and approved WakeWare Laptop. Students can also look for discounts through school pricing deals with manufacturers like Apple, Dell, and HP.
Are the Laptops Really Free?
By free, many schools mean that students can obtain a computer without paying the full price upfront. For such programs, the fine print explains that the cost of tuition also includes the price of a laptop or tablet. This allows the student to pay for a computer over time while gaining immediate use. For an outright free computer, students should research tech scholarships or grants.
Most schools also apply a technology fee for online courses. This fee, collected per term, covers the cost of maintaining an online learning environment. In the cases of free laptops or tablets, the fee also helps a school recoup some of the cost of providing such equipment. Students can also opt to purchase discounted laptops, which schools like Villanova University offer to all students.
Why Do Online Schools Give Students Laptops for Free?
The broad answer is for educational success. A student without access to a computer has little chance of keeping up with the rigorous demands of college work, and when it comes to online education, computers are essentially the classroom. Without a computer, a prospective student could not even consider applying to an online program. Thus, online colleges with free laptops or tablets remove the tech obstacle. By eliminating this barrier, students can more realistically consider online programs as an option for earning their degree.
When Do Students Receive Their Free Laptops?
It’s common for online colleges that provide laptops to send the computers out after the student officially enrolls. To account for students changing their enrollment plans, online schools tend to follow rules that minimize unnecessary shipping costs. On-campus students can often pick up their new computers on the first day of classes.
Can You Keep the Laptop?
Depending on the school or program, students may or may not get to keep their laptops upon graduation. For example, a student might lease a machine two years at a time, refreshing their laptop model midway through matriculation. Most programs that provide free laptops for college students allow them to keep their computers throughout their enrollment, including during summer and winter breaks.
The majority of online colleges that offer laptops through tuition allow students to keep their machines in the end. Tuition programs are similar to financing programs in that students pay for the computer over time. Such plans work out that by graduation, laptop ownership is ready to completely transfer to the student. As for leasing and rent-to-own programs, students usually have the option to buy the computer outright at a discount.
Note that all programs are contingent on the student’s good standing. If the student drops out or transfers to a different school, the equipment agreement with the school ends and the student must return the computer.
Who Is Responsible for Maintenance of the Laptop?
During a student’s enrollment, a provided laptop or tablet remains the property of the school. Thus, any maintenance or tech support falls to the school as well. Typically, a school’s information technology (IT) department is available 24 hours a day. IT can also help with software upgrades, including any questions about proper installment or clearing disk space.
Students who buy their laptops or tablets through purchase programs should research the machine’s warranty and any benefits of additional coverage. This computer should last you through four years of school and hopefully beyond, so it’s important to think of insurance as protection for your investment.
What If the Laptop Is Lost or Stolen?
In the event of a stolen laptop, it’s up to you to take the necessary next steps. As noted, free laptops for college students are the property of the school, not the student. Thus, students must report an incident of theft quickly. Note that you may have a limited amount of time to file a police report; for example, some schools stipulate students must file within 10 days.
After filing the report, notify the school. At this time, the school can help secure you a loaner laptop and file an insurance claim. Eventually, you’ll need to get a replacement computer at cost to you. However, the insurance claim could help with this unexpected cost, and you can also buy from programs that specialize in providing discounted or cheap laptops for school.
What Colleges Offer Free Laptops?
Colleges That Offer Free Laptops
- Seton Hill University
In support of Seton Hill’s mobile learning program, the university provides all traditional full-time undergraduate students with an iPad and MacBook, as well as the training to integrate the technology into their studies. Traditional enrollment refers to students who take 16-week courses versus accelerated sessions. As a partner of Apple, Seton Hill also holds the Apple Distinguished School designation.
- Chatham University
A mandatory technology fee entitles all incoming first-year students with a new 13-inch MacBook Air. Students also receive a backpack with a logo, laptop case, tech support, and four years of protection against damage and theft. Meanwhile, Chatham graduate students enrolled in programs that require a laptop or mobile workstation may purchase theirs at a discount from Apple, Dell, or HP.
- St. John's University
All new incoming full-time undergraduate students may opt into St. John’s laptop program, the Academic Computer Initiative (ACI). SJU provides participating ACI students a laptop for use during their matriculation. To cover costs, students pay a laptop usage fee each semester until graduation. The ACI program also entitles students to on-site tech support, a four-year extended warranty, and four years of accidental damage protection.
- Northwest Missouri State University
At Northwest, all full-time undergraduate and graduate students receive a fully loaded HP notebook. Undergrads must take at least 12 credits per semester, and graduates must take at least nine to be considered full time. This computer, along with rental of primary textbooks, can save students up to $7,300 over four years. The technology package includes on-campus tech support, and the laptop meets all minimum software and hardware requirements.
- Wentworth Institute of Technology
Wentworth provides every full-time student with a new laptop upon enrollment, with models to match one’s major. To ensure every student receives a computer, Wentworth already factors the cost into tuition. Upon graduation, the school transfers ownership to the student. The school will assess a laptop change fee should the student request a model change after the spring deadline.
- The Stevens-Henager College
All new undergraduate students receive a portable computer to use in the classroom that they can keep upon graduation. Along with a laptop, Stevens-Henager also provides tutoring and books on loan at no additional cost. Students in the School of Graphic Arts receive a Mac laptop. All laptops come preloaded with the software needed for each specific academic program.
Colleges That Offer Free Tablets
- Seton Hill University
Along with a MacBook, Seton Hill also offers all traditional full-time undergraduate students a new iPad. This tablet further supports the student’s mobile learning and commitment to around-the-clock access. In addition to undergraduates, graduate students working toward their MS in physician assistance, art therapy, marriage and family therapy, and orthodontics, also receive a compatible iPad.
- Long Island University - Brentwood
LIU launched its tablet program in 2010. Through the iPad initiative, incoming first-year students and faculty receive an Apple tablet. In 2013, the school replaced the original iPad with the iPad Mini. Available to full-time students, the iPad Minis provide on-the-go access to cloud computing, communications, and electronic text. Graduate and part-time students can purchase the tablets at a discount of $250.
- Saint Mary's University of Minnesota
As part of the school’s commitment to innovative delivery, Saint Mary’s provides iPads to its online students. The tablets come preloaded with a suite of productivity apps and allow students to fully integrate into the mobile learning platform. Students use the iPads for peer collaboration, discussion, video conferencing, and reading.
Colleges That Offer Discounted Laptops
- Villanova University
Villanova partners with Apple and PC Connection, Inc. to provide higher-education discounts on Apple and Dell computers. Available to students and their parents, the discounts apply to laptops, desktops, and tablets. Through the programs, students can save up to 10% on purchases, which can equate to $100 or more.
Colleges That Offer Laptop Rentals
- Northwest Missouri State University
Through Northwest’s textbook and laptop rental program, students can save over $7,000 over four years. The school provides all full-time students with an HP notebook. Northwest also allows undergraduates to rent their textbooks for the term. Students pick up their books at the start of their studies and return them after finals.
- Drexel University
Laptop rental kiosks at Drexel provide students with a 24-hour solution. The first kiosk, developed in partnership with Laptops Anytime, debuted in December 2012 at the school’s W.W. Hagerty Library. Today, students can rent one of 12 MacBook Pro computers and 24 portable power chargers. Students can check out the laptops for up to three hours at a time.
Even though an increasing number of schools are developing programs to provide free laptops for college students, it’s not yet a widespread practice. As a result, you may need to buy a new computer for school. To help you avoid any buyer’s remorse, check out the following purchasing guide that answers questions on specifications, warranties, and when to buy. Such information can prove helpful whether you’re purchasing a new computer, a discounted laptop, or a refurbished tablet. This computer should last for at least four years of your schooling. Even experienced computer users conduct proper research before a buy, as determining the differences among the latest laptops these days can be a difficult task.
Determining Your Needs
When schools provide a free laptop for students, it’s a given that the machine will meet the minimum tech requirements. Free laptops for college students also usually come pre-loaded with the applications students need for their coursework. When purchasing a new laptop on your own, it’s up to you to ensure your machine passes muster. Once you determine what your computer needs as a college student are, you can then start to compare the models that best meet them.
Specifications to Consider
- Operating System
An operating system, or OS, refers to a computer’s platform. There are three main operating systems: Windows, macOS (Apple), and Linux. Your major may require a particular platform. For example, a design major generally works within the macOS environment, while a computer science or engineering major typically prefers Windows.
Portability is a top consideration for most students and their computers. A smaller, lightweight laptop, ideally 13-14 inches, can help minimize weight in a backpack and consequently the burden on one’s back. Fortunately, laptops today continue to shrink in size, all without sacrificing performance. Competition among manufacturers also benefits the consumer as prices must stay within a range that’s reasonable.
The display of a computer refers to its visual performance, which mostly means screen resolution. While high resolution is now the norm, students must still weigh a computer’s ability to handle all the tasks their major requires. For example, a design major may need a higher resolution screen, which may require a dedicated graphics card to run their programs smoothly. Such a requirement would eliminate some of the lower-priced computer models available.
A common misconception is that computer memory equals space available on a hard drive. The term refers to RAM or random access memory, which impacts how applications open and run on a computer. A computer with less RAM will run more slowly. For what most students use their computers for, having at least 4GB of DDR3 (a type of SDRAM) RAM should prove adequate.
- Processor Speed
The processor of a computer refers to the machine’s logic circuitry, and the speed refers to how fast a computer can process all the requests. Intel and AMD provide most of the multicore processors used in computers today. This is another spec where the industry standard should prove sufficient for most students and majors.
- Battery Life
A fully charged laptop battery should last a student up to eight hours depending on what programs the student runs. For on-campus students especially, owning a laptop with long battery life is an important consideration. You don’t want your computer to become powerless during the day. Battery life expectancy, meanwhile, averages about two years. Expectancy refers to when a battery starts to lose its ability to hold a charge.
Meeting School Requirements
The laptop you purchase should meet the minimum tech requirements for your program. While online colleges with free laptops and tablets already ensure this, it’s up to you to check if you’re making the purchase yourself. Most online schools list the minimum tech requirements on various pages on the official site. In addition to the program page, you should also find tech information in the FAQ, orientation page, and admissions page. Note that during your course of study, the minimum requirements may change. If so, it’s again up to you to update your system. As an online student, you can request help from tech support on upgrades, installation, or troubleshooting.
Most Popular College Laptops for College Students
Through partnerships and learning initiatives, online colleges that provide laptops can choose from the most popular models today. These schools can also offer free laptops for college students that meet all the requirements of a particular major. While some schools choose one brand over the other, most schools opt to go with a few models from the two top operating systems: Windows and macOS.
In general, Apple computers are pricier than PCs, and tend to hold their resale value for longer. Apple fans claim Macs are more user-friendly, citing the fewer updates needed and seeming defense against malware. PC fans, meanwhile, will counter this by pointing to the breadth of software available for Windows. Note that computer science and engineering majors tend to work within Windows or Linux, while design, communications, and creative majors often prefer Mac.
Before purchasing a laptop, it’s important to do your research. As noted, your academic major may remove all doubt as to what model you need to buy. However, if you can choose from all Macs and PCs, then you need to ask the right questions as a consumer. Important factors to consider when making your computer purchase include performance, price, size, display, RAM, storage, and battery life.
|Model Name||Cost||Operating System||Processor Speed||RAM||Screen Size||Weight||Battery Life|
|MacBook Air||$999||macOS High Sierra||1.8GHz dual-core Intel i5, Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz, with 3MB shared L3 cache||8GB||13.3″||2.96lbs||Up to 12 hours of wireless usage or audio playback|
|Microsoft Surface Pro||$799||Windows 10 Pro||Intel 7th Gen Core m3||4GB||12.3″||1.69lbs||Up to 13.5 hours of local video playback on Wi-Fi; 12.5 hours on LTE Advanced|
|Asus Chromebook Flip C302||$649||Chrome OS||Intel Core m5 1.1GHz, Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz||4GB||12.5″||2.60lbs||Up to 10 hours|
|Model Name||Cost||Operating System||Processor Speed||RAM||Screen Size||Weight||Battery Life|
|Lenovo Yoga 730||$879||Windows 10 Home||1.8GHz 8th Gen Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 4.0 GHz with 8MB cache||Up to 16GB||13.3″||2.62lbs||Up to 10.5 hours|
|HP Stream 11-Y010NR||$199||Windows 10||1.6GHz Intel Celeron||4GB||11.6″||2.57lbs||Up to 8.5 hours|
|Apple MacBook Pro||$1,799||macOS High Sierra||2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz, with 128 MB of eDRAM||16GB||13.3″||3.02lbs||Up to 10 hours of wireless usage or audio playback|
A backpack, protective case, docking station, printer, and HDMI cables are all items you might want to consider purchasing along with your new laptop. When calculating the cost of a new student computer, be sure to think of what the total cost is after you purchase all the peripherals and gadgets needed to turn your laptop into a tech hub.
While free laptops for college students can help offset the cost of peripherals, discounted laptops and bundled offers can also help assuage the bottom line. Retailers often offer bundled laptop deals that include items a student will need for their studies.
Another cost to consider is buying tech protection for your laptop. Online colleges that offer laptops, like St. John’s University, typically provide four years of coverage for accidental damage. Most laptops come with a one-year manufacturer’s warranty. If you buy your own machine, you’ll need to think about the years following once the warranty runs out.
Adding on an extended warranty could prove invaluable down the road should anything happen to your computer. It may seem like a steep price today (for example, $350 for three or more years), but you need to look at it as a long-term investment. Students can purchase extended warranties from retailers like Best Buy and Apple, as well as through credit card companies.
Read the fine print on any agreement, especially if it includes the word “limited.”
The Best Time to Buy
Another consideration when buying your laptop is when to buy. While there’s likely always a sale going on somewhere, finding it in time poses the problem. Luckily, there are three times a year when retailers take the guesswork out of laptop deals. Waiting to buy your new computer during these set times could result in considerable savings that you can then use for other school essentials.
According to market research company NPD Group, retailers offer laptop sales during the spring, back-to-school crush, and the holiday season. For students, the back-to-school sale, which occurs from the last week of July and first three weeks of August, is a prime time to get their new computer. Not only are prices lower on laptops, but retailers also offer bundled deals. These deals vary, but typically the extra items are what students may buy anyway like a printer, software, or iPod.
Laptop Magazine explains that retailers coincide their deals to when manufacturers release their new models. PC manufacturers tend to release new models in the early spring, midsummer, and fall. While Apple’s schedule is less regular, consumers can expect at least one big release each year. In 2017, for example, Apple released all its new MacBooks in June.
To make room for the new, retailers lower the prices on the old. However, many of these older models were top-of-the-line just a few weeks prior. So, as you research your new laptop, it’s wise to keep in mind when the yearly sales events are. Doing so could save you not only money but also the dreaded buyer’s remorse.
Additional Ways to Save on a Laptop
Laptop Scholarships and Grants
In addition to discounted and free laptops for college students, some schools also designate scholarships and grants that students can use toward a tech purchase. While some schools like Widener University and Indiana University specify that students use such gift aid for acquiring tech, other schools leave it up to the student to decide. Students can also apply to scholarship programs from manufacturers like Apple and Dell. Many tech sites, blogs, and organizations hold annual competitions where the reward helps budgeting students buy laptops, tablets, and other tech devices for school.
- Laptop Scholarship for College Students
Description: Teradatariver chooses one essay winner per school year. In their essays, students must make a case for the laptop they wish to purchase with the scholarship money and discuss why it’s the best computer for them and their college needs. Any student taking higher-education classes may apply.
- Dell Scholars Program
Description: Applicants must be a junior or senior in high school and enrolled in an approved college readiness program. They must also begin their college career in the fall following graduation and be eligible to receive a federal Pell Grant.
Amount: $20,000, a laptop, and textbook credits
- Laptop Under Budget Annual Scholarship Program
Description: Any college student may apply for this scholarship, and there are no limits on the level of study or major. Interested students must submit an essay of 800-1,000 words on the year’s designated topic, which will relate to laptops and college. In 2017, for example, questions covered what to look for in a college laptop and how desktop PCs and laptops compare.
Amount: Varies depending on rank
- The Chickasaw Nation Laptop Scholarship
Description: The laptop scholarship is one of several designated for students who are Chickasaw citizens. Applicants must be at least a college sophomore with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher. Students may submit applications three times a year.
College students benefit from various discounts on items such as books, apparel, groceries, and tech. For distance students, especially those attending schools that do not provide free laptops, tech discounts can mean the difference between enrolling now or later.
Education programs from schools and manufacturers help students on a budget obtain the tech they need to enroll, participate, and succeed. When shopping for a laptop, research and compare available discounts from makers like Dell, Apple, and Microsoft. These discount programs are available year-round; all you need to do is verify your enrollment status.
Leasing a Laptop
Another option in obtaining a new laptop for school is to partake in a leasing or rent-to-own program. Similar to financing a purchase, you pay for the machine in monthly installments. In the meantime, you get to use it as if you owned it outright. At the end of most lease agreements, students can purchase the laptop or tablet at a reduced price (if not yet already paid off).
A student who decides to hold off on college for a year can simply return a leased laptop and expire the agreement. Another advantage of this type of agreement is that students can change the model at some point. You can typically lease a student laptop for 1-4 years.
Purchasing Refurbished or Used Laptops
When researching how to get a free laptop, students may come across the cost-savings approach of refurbished or used laptops. Available direct from manufacturers, through schools, and on the open market, a refurbished laptop or tablet is any machine that can no longer pass as brand new. Thus, this could mean a computer that a customer bought, removed from the box, and returned to the store the following day. The term could also refer to a repaired, defective, or previously leased computer. As with any purchase, it’s important to do your research, ask questions, and make an informed decision.
- Apple: Apple backs the quality of its refurbished products with a one-year warranty and certified promise. Students can expect to save up to $300 on refurbished Apple laptops and up to $100 on iPads.
- Best Buy: As a retailer, some of the refurbished products Best Buy lists may very well be new. In addition to the laptop’s condition, students can also filter results by the operating system, size, and price range. Most refurbished products offer a minimum 90-day warranty.
- Amazon: The Amazon marketplace lists thousands of refurbished products on the open market. Be sure to research the vendor, as well. To help sort through results, Amazon features filters like display size, processor type, and RAM capacity.
- Newegg: Refurbished or factory serviced products from Newegg pass testing, inspection, and repair at an authorized repair facility. If repaired by a certified technician, Newegg also classifies such products as refurbished. Newegg’s return policy allows customers to return refurbished products, too.
- Dell Refurbished: At Dell, almost all refurbished products are “off lease,” meaning they are no longer subject to a lease agreement. Depending on the lease terms, some machines may be in relatively new condition. Every Dell purchase comes with a 100-day limited warranty.
Laptop Review Sites
- CNET: Founded in 1994, CNET covers the latest technology breakthroughs and provides consumers with the information, tools, and advice they need to make informed decisions when it comes to tech.
- PCMag: PCMag focuses on reviews of the latest computers and consumer electronics. Part of the Ziff Davis Family of sites, which includes Mashable, Speedtest, and ExtremeTech, PCMag launched more than 35 years ago in 1982.
- PCWorld: As its name suggests, PCWorld focuses on PCs and aims to help users get the most out of their tech. Readers can find reviews, advice, and profiles on mainstream PCs, gaming PCs, PC games, and the latest hardware and software.
- The Verge: The Verge launched in 2011 with a singular purpose: to cover tech innovation and examine how technology impacts our lives via media, transportation, and science.
- Laptop Mag: This magazine and its staff devote themselves to helping consumers choose the best laptop. From the online student to the freelance writer, Laptop Magazine helps readers discern what portable computer best meets their needs.
- Versus.com: Versus.com is a comparison platform that provides unbiased comparisons in over 90 categories and 13 languages. The global site, launched in 2011, features 7 million comparisons for users to roam through.
- Amazon: Founded in 1994, Amazon began as a bookstore and is now the world’s largest e-commerce marketplace and cloud computing platform.
- eBay: A survivor of the dot-com bubble, eBay specializes in consumer-to-consumer and business-to-consumer sales. Buyers can purchase everything from books and buttons to laptops and cars.
- TigerDirect: Based in El Segundo, California, this online retailer sells electronics, computers, and computer components. While TigerDirect caters to businesses, consumers can shop its inventory as well.
- Newegg: An online retailer based in City of Industry, California, Newegg mainly sells computer hardware and consumer electronics. In 2010, the online retailer relaunched and broadened its product offerings beyond tech.
- BuyDig: Based in Edison, New Jersey, BuyDig specializes in the online sale of consumer electronics. The retailer also sells computers, tablets, printers, and external hard drives.
- Dell: A developer of PCs and their components, Dell also sells, repairs, and supports tech. For students and schools, the company created Dell University to help foster the benefits of having access to technology.
- HP: Headquartered in Palo Alto, California, HP develops personal computers, tablets, printers, and 3D solutions. The company’s education store regularly offers discounts on Hewlett-Packard products to qualified, enrolled students.
More Resources for Saving
- Notebooks for Students: NFS provides enrolled students with considerable discounts on laptops and tablets. Through its partnership with manufacturers and refurbishing labs, NFS aims to provide as many students as possible with portable computing power.
- Dealnews: DealNews features the latest on deals around the internet. The site launched over 20 years ago.
- Student Edge: Through Student Edge, students can learn about money management, budgeting, and how to make sound financial decisions. The site began with the intent of helping students stretch their allowances and contend with the rising costs of living.
- The Simple Dollar: This personal finance blog aims to help readers get out of debt, change bad spending habits, and improve their financial destiny. The Simple Dollar sees about 1 million visitors each month.
- Student.com: Launched in 2011, Student.com devotes its efforts to help students from around the world find the right housing as they pursue their academic goals.