When colleges in the California State University system sent students home from campus in spring 2020, it quickly became clear that some students lacked reliable access to the internet or computers through which to participate in their pandemic-era emergency remote courses.
Institutions did what they could to help in the moment, trying “band-aid remedies” such as loaning out laptops or expanding Wi-Fi service into parking lots, says Mike Uhlenkamp, senior director of public affairs for the system.
But administrators realized that the problem they were trying to treat—the digital divide—was less like a mild cut and more like a deep wound. And patching the gash between the technology haves and have-nots might require a more substantial remedy than a band-aid.
So this fall, eight institutions in the California State University system are lending iPads and tech accessories including a stylus and smart keyboard to all new freshmen and transfer students who want them, regardless of financial need. The tablets are theirs to hold onto for their entire undergraduate careers.
“You’re going to the bookstore, picking this up on the first day of classes, and returning it when collecting your cap and gown,” Uhlenkamp says.
We’re publishing a series about how pandemic-era practices are continuing to shape higher education. Check out related article, “The Pandemic Pushed Colleges to Record Lectures. The Practice May Be Here to Stay.”
Loaning the occasional laptop is not a new practice in higher education, but providing them en masse may be. So far, the participating Cal State colleges have distributed more than 22,700 tablets—a scale of distribution that Uhlenkamp says may be unmatched. It’s happening elsewhere, too, like at Virginia Union University, an HBCU that gave about 400 freshmen iPads this fall, to keep. Norfolk State University is giving Apple tech to all incoming and returning students—plus faculty.
The new efforts are signs that the pandemic’s illumination of the digital divide may shift higher education’s technology policies away from BYOD—bring your own device—and toward providing tech tools to students, to make sure none is left behind due to having no or even a slow computer or cellphone. Partnerships with some institutions have also been prompted by tech companies looking to better support minority students.
The California program—officially known as California State University Connectivity Contributing to Equity and Student Success—has several goals, Uhlenkamp says. One is to prepare students for the additional online courses the system is looking to offer even after the pandemic, to meet student demand for remote options. Another is to try to improve graduation rates among low-income students; nearly half of all of the system’s undergraduates receive Pell Grants.
“We are looking under every rock, examining every process, to help,” Uhlenkamp says. “Providing tools to students at the beginning of their career is integral to achieving those goals. It is ensuring all students have an opportunity to graduate.”
The program is free for students but costs institutional dollars; Cal State purchased the iPads, albeit at a discount. If it proves successful, the system hopes to expand it, either with public or private support.