If you’re looking to go back to school, chances are you know the benefits of having your own laptop or tablet for personal study time, on your terms. However, computers can be expensive — many online colleges that offer free laptops do so to help offset that cost. Some even provide free iPads to new freshmen enrolled in four-year programs.
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As a student, you will need to have a reliable computing device throughout your years of study for accessing lectures, student services, word processing software, and more. With your own laptop, you have more control over when and where you can complete course work; forget having to run home, visit the library, or hunt for a computer with internet access just to finish your work online. As an added bonus, a laptop provides the security of knowing your information is safe on your personal device instead of risking your privacy on a shared public computer.
Online colleges have become adept at recognizing the needs of virtual learners and now post lists of “minimum requirements” that students’ computers must meet for success in their online programs. (*See below for an example). To ensure that the technology barrier is not one that prevents students from completing their education and to ensure that all technical specs are met, many online colleges that provide laptops offer new students a device that matches the program’s exact computing requirements.
What’s the Catch?
Like every promise of a “free lunch,” or in this case, a “free laptop,” there are some strings and stipulations attached. The bottom line is that you can’t just sign up with an online program for a few weeks to score a free laptop. With many online colleges that offer laptops, you must remain in the program for the full term and graduate to be granted full ownership of your laptop.
And while most online colleges that supply laptops allow their graduates to keep their laptops upon graduation, some schools ask for them to be returned (but may still offer the student a deep discount to purchase the device).
Is it Completely Free?
This depends on the individual offer. Be sure to read the fine print and consider all the factors involved. Most online colleges that offer laptops for “free” are actually charging a laptop usage fee, meaning that these are actually online colleges that offer laptops in tuition fees, which is paid out in installments over time to make up the full cost of the device. Other schools are actually offering steep discounts for students to purchase devices through their programs, rather than having the laptop be completely free of charge.
But in all cases, students must complete the full program to keep using the laptop; if the student is paying in installments to use the computer and drops out, they must return the machine but may not be charged additional fees if they are no longer enrolled. The condition of the laptop also varies from school to school; some online colleges that provide laptops offer new computers with the option to purchase upon graduation, while others effectively rent pre-owned or refurbished laptops to students for the duration of their time at that institution.
Which Are Some Online Colleges That Give You Laptops?
Fortunately, to help ease the cost of buying a computer, online colleges that offer free laptops are becoming more common. Many online colleges offer new students the opportunity for a free or low-cost laptop. But, as previously mentioned, there may be certain caveats involved. This list of schools with laptop programs is a great place to start your planning:
- Online colleges that offer laptops for free, which students can keep after graduating
- Online colleges that offer laptops for free, which students must return after graduating
- Online colleges that provide laptops at deeply discounted prices
Note: Even if your online college is not listed here, most colleges and universities do offer a discount or assistance program for students to purchase both hardware and software that they will need during their course of study. Search your school’s website for “computers” or “laptops,” or contact their student services department to find out if discounts are available.
- Schools offering free iPads, which students can keep after graduating
Although tablets do not have as many features as laptops, they can still be an enormous boon to students. For this reason, some online colleges now offer new or incoming students an iPad rather than a laptop. Here’s the current list of colleges offering iPads to students:
How to Choose the Best Laptop for College
If your online school of choice is not one of the online colleges that offer laptops for free, you have alternative options for finding a high-quality, low-cost computer for college. Before you start shopping, however, it’s recommended that you locate your school’s minimum computing requirements (*see example below) so that you’re sure to purchase a machine that meets those specifications. This collection of articles will help inform you on how to choose the best laptop for college.
- Best budget laptops: We rate the best-selling portables on Amazon and Best Buy – This PC World article rates and reviews low-cost laptop devices and outlines their pros and cons.
- The Best Laptops for College Students – This PCMag article offers an organized, user-friendly comparison of recommended laptops for college that would be excellent for student use, featuring a list of specs, price and review information.
- Laptop Buying Guide: 8 Essential Tips – Laptop magazine provides an article packed with great advice for purchasing laptops that are suitable for back to school.
- The 10 best laptops for students in 2017: the best laptops for college, high school and more – TechRadar rates and reviews ten machines that can be called the best laptop for college because they are low-cost, yet powerful enough to handle students’ computing needs at all price points.
- The Best Back-to-School Laptops – The experts at the popular Mashable blog recently compiled a list of highly recommended student laptop devices.
- Engadget’s 17 best laptops of 2015 – The writers of the Engadget blog have suggestions for laptops for college, ranging from low-cost to extremely high-end options.
Making the Choice: Laptops vs. Tablets
If you’re wondering whether to spend your back-to-school money on a laptop or go with the ultra-mobile tablet device, there’s a lot to consider. Be sure to review the minimum requirements of your school, and also take into account the type of program you’ll be joining.
A laptop can offer more comprehensive support for graphic design, filmmaking and fine arts programs, for example, as well as other programs that require heavy research and numerous software functions. On the other hand, if you’ll be using your device mainly for accessing files on-the-go and/or taking notes in class, the lighter, more mobile tablet may be just right for you.
Still undecided? Here are several resources that help weigh the pros and cons:
- Laptop Vs. Tablet For College Students: Which One Is Right For You (GradeSlam)
- Laptop Vs Tablet: Two educators in the trenches duke it out. (Scholastic)
- Laptop vs. tablet: which is better to take with you to school? (Yahoo News)
- 10 Back-to-School Laptop Buying Tips (CIO Magazine)
- Tablets Vs. Laptops: Questions to Consider (Lenovo)
- Back to School tech: Laptop vs. tablet (Guelph Mercury)
- Should I buy a laptop or an iPad? iPad vs laptop (Tech Advisor)
- Should You Get Your Child an iPad or Laptop for School? (Mashable)
Example of Minimum Computing Requirements
*These example requirements were taken from Kaplan University’s website here.
To enroll in classes online, you must have access to a computer with the following minimum requirements:
- A PC running a Microsoft Windows Operating System (XP, Vista, or Windows 7; please note, release candidate versions are not supported) or Mac OS X with the operating system’s minimum requirements for processor, memory, and hard drive (See the Microsoft or Apple website for minimum requirements) †
- At least 10.0 GB of free hard-drive space (additional space may be needed for multimedia files)
- 1024 x 768 monitor with a 16-bit or greater video card (24-bit preferred)
- DVD-ROM drive or CD-ROM drive
- Sound card with speakers and microphone (for selected courses)
- A Microsoft Windows ® Operating System (XP, Vista, or Windows 7; please note, release candidate versions are not supported) or Mac OS X
- Microsoft Office 2007 or a more recent version of the Microsoft Office software suite; students also have the option of accessing Microsoft Office web applications through KU Campus §
- A current antivirus and antispyware application that is updated regularly
- Internet Explorer 8.0 or a more recent version, or Firefox 5.0 or a more recent version
- Adobe ® Reader ® 8.0 or a more recent version (free download)
- Adobe ® Flash Player 9.0 or a more recent version (free download)
- Sun Java 2 SDK (Java 1.5) or a more recent version for PC (free download)
- Classic Java (MRJ 2.2.5) or a more recent version for Mac (free download)
- An Internet service provider (ISP)
- A dedicated, reliable 128 Kbps or faster Internet connection