When schools and districts provide a digital device for every student, they often say that these 1-to-1 programs equip young people with the skills they need to compete for tech-focused jobs in a changing economy.
But in the postsecondary world, simply owning a personal computer may not lead to better job prospects, a new study suggests.
The study, outlined in a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that giving free computers to community college students had no significant effect on students’ future wages, total earnings, or rates of employment over the following 7-year period.
Researchers also didn’t find any effects on future college enrollment, leading to continued education at four-year schools.
The results pose a stark contrast to other studies on this issue: Most show that people who own a computer make more money, all other factors being equal.
And an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, included in the paper, found that computer ownership led to higher earnings among young adults with an associate’s degree or some college—the same demographic in the experimental study.
Selection bias in earlier studies could account for the difference between this study and previous research, said Robert Fairlie, the study’s lead author and a professor of economics at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
“The people that could benefit the most from the computers are exactly those that go out and get a computer,” he said. In the new study, computers were assigned randomly.
The students were not provided with internet service through the study, though researchers recorded that more than 90 percent of the students who participated in the project had access to the internet.
Participants were 286 students at Butte College, part of the California Community College system. Computers were randomly distributed to just under half of these students in 2006. All of the students in the study were receiving financial aid.
The study tracked students’ education and workforce activity through 2013, using earnings and employment information collected through California’s state employment development department and unemployment insurance system, as well as restricted-access administrative data on college enrollment from California community college system and the National Student Clearinghouse.
Even though the study showed no effect of computer ownership on workforce participation, the researchers did find some advantage to having a computer at home. Students who received the devices saw an improvement in educational outcomes over the following year and a half, and more of them said their computer skills improved compared to the students who didn’t receive computers.
It’s also possible that reliable, consistent access to a computer could have a different effect on career prospects now than it did in the late-2000s, when many of the students in this study were entering their first jobs. A growing number of jobs now require computer skills like coding, data analysis, or software development—and those jobs pay more, on average, than jobs that don’t require them.
The most important takeaway from the study, said Fairlie, is that schools need to critically examine why they’re implementing technology and gather solid evidence about how that technology will affect educational outcomes.
“If we’re going to put a lot of investment into technology, then we have to be careful,” he said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.