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Some Colleges Offering Free Laptops For Students As Courses Go Virtual

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A lot of colleges are moving forward with virtual fall semesters. For students, that means a laptop is essential. Some schools offer them for free, but others are still deciding whether to make that investment. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When the pandemic hit the state of Washington, it took Patricia Lopez's job as a medical assistant with it. She's a single mom raising two kids. And those first couple of weeks were hard.

PATRICIA LOPEZ: You know, it hasn't been the easiest. But I figure, you know, everything happens for a reason.

NADWORNY: She decided to enroll in a community college just north of Seattle to finally get that degree - some insurance, she thought. She signed up for classes on her iPhone. She didn't have a computer or Internet at home.

LOPEZ: I was going to rely on going to the library, where I could have access there and doing my work and studying there.

NADWORNY: That plan was quickly foiled when Everett Community College, Lopez's school, moved most classes online and the library shut down. A friend gifted her an old iPad, and she signed up for discounted Internet through her daughter's elementary school. While the iPad was great for watching videos, it wasn't so great for her academics.

LOPEZ: Anything that had to do with typing and such I kind of dreaded because having to, like, punch in every word with my finger, it does not work.

NADWORNY: It's estimated that about 10% of college students - that's about 2 million people - don't have access to a laptop for school. Experts say that might be actually much higher now, when so many families are sharing devices to work remotely or to keep younger children in virtual school.

TIM RAGER: A lot of people still felt laptops were a luxury as opposed to a must-have. And now we're realizing it's really a must-have.

NADWORNY: Tim Rager is in charge of IT at Everett Community College. The college, like so many schools, had a laptop loaner program for years. It consisted of about 50 laptops in the library.

RAGER: So students would check them in and out per quarter, much like you would check out a book - kind of the same idea.

NADWORNY: But when classes went virtual, they switched from short-term rentals to long-term rentals. They got hundreds of requests. Fifty laptops would not suffice. So Rager went out and bought 400 more. He thought it would be enough. He was wrong.

RAGER: That initial 400 were gone. I mean, they were just gobbled up.

NADWORNY: So they ordered another 700. That's when Patricia Lopez, who'd been trying to use her iPad, heard about the program. Next day, she picked up a new Chromebook and a Wi-Fi hot spot. Her 11-year-old, Yamaly, who uses Chromebooks in school, showed her how to use it.

LOPEZ: I was frustrated because I couldn't copy and paste. And she was like, Mom, you just push this, and then she just started moving the whole thing. And I'm like, whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on. You've got to slow down for me.

NADWORNY: She eventually learned all those keyboard shortcuts. Ctrl Z, which lets you undo something, has been a lifesaver. She says everything about school is just faster now.

LOPEZ: With a computer or laptop, I have a mouse. And I can just - like, you know, just even scrolling through pages or anything that I'm doing, it's so much easier.

NADWORNY: Colleges across the country have been doing the same thing as Lopez's school. They're amassing as many computers as the market will allow so they can lend them out to students. A handful of campuses have even turned to companies to do this for them. But demand for devices is high, and experts say if schools wait to stock up, it may be too late.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.