Getting your degree online is a smart option, especially if traditional, on-campus learning doesn't fit well with your already busy schedule. Of course, in order to earn your bachelor’s degree online, you need to have regular, reliable access to a computer — one that’s powerful enough to handle the technology needed to access your online classes.
That’s why many online colleges have programs that allow students access to "free" laptops. Sometimes the cost of the equipment is built into your tuition. Sometimes the equipment is issued to you on a "borrowing" basis, meaning you're expected to return it when you're finished with school.
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In general, you’ll need a computer that has Internet access and that is powerful enough to handle the system requirements of an online learning management system. Some degree programs or individual classes may require more-robust computer systems than average. For example, a program that deals with graphic design or video production may necessitate the need for a more powerful (and likely more expensive) computer.
Purchasing the appropriate laptop on your own will probably cost between $500 and $1,500 for a standard laptop if you buy from a retail store or website. So let's talk about how you may be able to land a free computer instead.
1. Bundle the price of the laptop into your tuition — but be smart about it
Some colleges offer a “free” laptop as part of your tuition. However, keep in mind the cost of the laptop is likely built into your total cost of attendance in other ways. It may be a line item within your tuition and fees (look for a "technology fee"), or it may be absorbed into overall higher rates.
Tip: Don’t make a so-called free laptop a deciding factor. A school that costs $5,000 more per year but includes a "free" laptop may not be a great deal compared to a cheaper school that requires you to purchase your own equipment. And keep in mind that you'll probably need to pay extra for software like Microsoft Office, so be sure to find out what programs you'll need to have — and which might be helpful but not required — before you start your comparison shopping.
In general, you can use student loan funds and some types of financial aid to cover educational expenses, including laptops.
A large number of schools, both online-only and traditional, will issue you a laptop to use while you're pursuing your degree. You won't get to keep the computer when you graduate, but you'll have the assurance of consistent online access while you're in school.
For example, Northwest Missouri State University issues all degree-program students a laptop at the beginning of their studies. The computers must be returned upon completion of a degree, or if the student drops below a certain enrollment status. Students are able to keep the laptops during summer breaks for a fee of $75.
A very nice bonus to arrangements like this: Tech support is often part of the deal. Score!
3. Use grant or scholarship money
Some forms of financial assistance may have limitations on how you can spend the money — but not all do. Be sure to look at the details of all the forms of financial aid you're receiving.
Federal Pell Grants may be used to purchase laptops, however, you may get the funds in a roundabout way. Pell Grants are paid directly to your school for tuition and fees. If there is money left over, you may be issued a refund check, which you can then use to purchase educational supplies, including a computer.
However, remember that refund checks from student loans do need to be paid back, just like the rest of the loan. You may still be able to use those dollars for school expenses, just remember they will be tacked onto your student loan balance.
4. Get a scholarship specifically for a laptop
The Dell Scholars program awards laptops, financial assistance, and textbook credits to promising low-income students every year. See more from Dell.
It's always a good idea to apply for scholarships, whether you want to use the money for laptops, tuition, or other school expenses. We recommend the Scholly app as a great resource for finding scholarships you might qualify for.
5. Borrow a laptop
Do you know someone who upgrades their technology on the regular? Perhaps they have an old laptop (or two) hanging around that they haven't bothered to offload yet. It's always worth asking.
Post your request on social media and ask friends and family to share it. You can also check local groups, such as Facebook's "Buy Nothing" pages where people post items they no longer need and will give away for free. People love the rush of doing a good deed — and you never can tell what might show up on your doorstep.
Not free, but cheaper
So it’s not free, but buying a laptop through your school may land you a pretty sizable discount compared to purchasing one at a store or online. However, be sure to do comparison shopping to get the best deal.
There are advantages to buying through your school, in that you can have the reassurance that the computer should be able to handle the minimum requirements that you’ll need to complete your coursework. Your purchase price may also include tech support and/or a warranty.
Remember, you may also have costs above and beyond the price of the laptop for certain computer programs. For example, you’ll probably need Microsoft Office so you can access Word and Excel to complete your assignments. Some colleges may include online access to these programs, while others will require you to purchase the software licenses on your own.
Insuring your laptop
Schools may also offer computer insurance in case your laptop is damaged or destroyed. While you may not want to spend the extra money, remember that it's helping to safeguard your educational investment. If you have roommates, kids, or pets, you computer may be more at risk of physical damage. These policies also generally cover theft. If your laptop travels with you, or if you live in a high-crime area, this is important coverage to have.
If you already have a homeowner's or renter's insurance policy, it might be worth checking with your insurance agent to find out if you can add your technology to your existing policy. Often, computers are not covered under these policies unless you have a specific rider.
Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky