Home Computers Improve Outcomes for Disadvantaged Students

Providing free computers for home use to low-income community college students in the United States has been beneficial for their educational performance. That is the central finding of a field experiment conducted by Professor Robert Fairlie and Dr Rebecca London, the results of which are published in the June 2012 issue of the Economic Journal.

Their research finds that access to a home computer improved students’ computer skills. It also increased the likelihood that students would complete courses successfully and that they would graduate to a four-year university. These positive outcomes were particularly pronounced for students who commuted the longest distances to attend college and those who had jobs as well as studying.

The researchers note that 45 million US households (38% of the total) do not have home computers with internet access. This ‘digital divide’ disproportionately affects low-income and minority families. By limiting their access to information and the resources needed for everyday participation in the information age, it creates further disadvantage for young people and adults who are already at risk.

To investigate the hypothesis that students’ access to their own designated home computer could improve their educational outcomes, the researchers conducted the first-ever field experiment involving the provision of free computers to low-income community college students for home use.

Focusing on community college students who received financial aid from the start of their studies, they followed the students for two years to assess how receipt of a free home computer affected their enrolment, graduation and course success.

Compared with a randomly selected control group, the students who received home computers were two percentage points more likely to pass their courses, 3.3 percentage points more likely to take a course for a grade, 6.1 percentage points more likely to take courses to transfer to a four-year university and 1.9 percentage points more likely to graduate with a degree or certificate. These results take account of any differences in the computer giveaway and control groups.

The community college at which the experiment took place has computer labs available on campus, but there is no housing for students on campus. Among those who received home computers, students who commuted the greatest distance experienced the most benefit, possibly due to improved flexibility of computer use.

For example, receiving a home computer was associated with a 6.3 percentage point impact on course success and an 11.9 percentage point impact on earning a certificate or degree. There was also a 9.8 percentage point impact of receiving a home computer on taking a course that transfers to four-year universities among those who had jobs as well as attending college.

But the study also finds higher levels of game, social networking and entertainment use among students who received home computers. More research is clearly needed on the potential displacement effect of entertainment uses of home computers on time spent studying.

The authors comment:

‘Understanding how computer and internet access affects at-risk students’ long-term educational outcomes is extremely important to prevent a widening of the existing gap in achievement.

‘Our results support the importance of closing the remaining digital divide to reduce educational inequality in the United States and other developed countries.

‘For some students, especially low-income students, the cost – or perceived cost – of obtaining a home computer may be prohibitive.’

The solutions they propose to increase access for disadvantaged students could include tax credits, special loans for educational computer purchase or an expansion of computer refurbishing programmes that provide low-cost machines.

In addition, schools and colleges could expand programmes that allow students to check out school laptop computers for home use. Although there are large-scale programmes that subsidise the school use of technology (for example, the E-Rate Program), programmes encouraging personal investment in education technology are limited in the United States.

The authors conclude:

‘Addressing the digital divide in access to home computing is likely to become even more important as schools, professors and providers of financial aid increasingly using technology to provide information and course content and to communicate with students.’

‘The Effects of Home Computers on Educational Outcomes: Evidence from a Field Experiment with Community College Students’ by Robert Fairlie and Rebecca London is published in the June 2012 issue of the Economic Journal.