As enrollment declines nationwide, colleges and universities search for ever-more creative ways to recruit. Often prospective students need to see something tangible — a concrete attribute that sets one $30,000-plus liberal arts school apart from another of comparable size and cost. To a student, what’s going to make one grassy quadrangle look different from the next?
One strategy schools have adopted: Offering high-tech freebies.
Numerous traditional and online schools have laptop discount programs for entering freshmen or first-year graduate students. A few have taken such deals a step further – offering free iPads™ or iPad minis™ to enrollees:
- Illinois Institute of Technology – A private technology-focused research university based in Chicago started offering incoming freshmen free iPads in 2010
- Long Island University – One of the country’s largest private universities, with campuses in Brooklyn and Brookville, NY, this school of 18,621 students offers free iPad mini’s to incoming freshmen
- Maryville University — This 6,828-student university near St. Louis distributes free iPads to all of its 2,292 undergraduates as well as a portion of its 3,687 graduate students
- Regis College – The Massachusetts-based school delivers free iPads to all 1,954 full-time undergrads and to select graduate students as well
- Seton Hill University – This private Pennsylvania-based Catholic liberal arts university offers all 2,200 full-time students an iPad and all its entering freshmen a free MacBook™ to boot
A free gadget from a high-profile, high-status company like Apple might dazzle a prospective student, but do major investments like this prove valuable over time? In order to really work, the strategy needs to pay off with more than just a minor bump in enrollment. The iPad needs to satisfy students for years — demonstrate true customer satisfaction by way of increasing retention. Moreover, if you want faculty buy-in for such a program, iPads need to correlate to higher learning outcomes.
ITT reports that faculty was delighted to replace ubiquitous classroom laptops that hide student faces with iPads, which increase possibility for eye-contact and engagement. Seton Hill’s website extols the virtues of supplying students with 21st-century learning tools that will allow them to better adapt to 21st-century workplaces.
Some reports are not so rosy. In one study at Penn State University, a group of students that tested iPads in a classroom during the course of the semester had mixed reviews. Students liked the lightweight portability of an iPad, but preferred their old laptops for word-processing and classic academic tasks like paper-writing.
IPads offer students the ability to easily download and read digital textbooks, which can save them a bundle on course materials costs and, in turn, support retention efforts. A 2016 study reported in Tech Times, shows that despite cost-savings, more than 90% of students prefer reading paper books to eBooks, however. Thus, many students may find the iPad has a limited role in their academic life – functioning in much the same way as a smartphone but more limited in its capabilities.
Beyond that, a 2014 article in The Atlantic reports that a number of K-12 schools and school districts have been re-evaluating their iPad programs after finding they do not bring the hoped-for increases in student learning outcomes. At one school, for instance, students mainly viewed the iPad as a place for playing games. Chromebooks had the opposite effect: Students saw these low-cost laptops as places where it was time to get down to work.
With all that said, at least one school has reported abundant success with its iPad-freebie program: Maryville University. In a recent video, posted on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website in February, College President Mark Lombardi talked about how his school’s iPad program has not just increased enrollment, but also boosted student retention and learning outcomes.
Since Maryville University distributed the tablets to its entire student body, he said, enrollment of first-year students has seen a 45% increase over the previous year. Surveys of parents and students identified the school’s “digital world initiative” as a key factor in why they chose Maryville. Beyond that, the school has seen a 12-20% improvement in learning outcomes in classes where faculty studied iPad use.
Maryville University has only had one year to study the results of its program, however.
In the end, it’s easy to see why administrators are drawn to the possibility of using iPad’s to lure prospective students. But as far as the long-term success of such programs is concerned, the jury is still out.