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The Effects of Home Computers on Educational Outcomes:
Evidence from a Field Experiment with Community College Students

forthcoming Economic Journal

Robert W. Fairlie
University of California, Santa Cruz

Rebecca A. London
Stanford University

July 2011

We thank the Community Technology Foundation of California (ZeroDivide), UCACCORD, and Computers for Classrooms, Inc. for funding. We thank Hardik Bhatt, Jesse Catlin, Eric Deveraux, Oliver Falck, Eszter Hargittai, Ofer Malamud, Jeff Prince, Jon Robinson, Rhonda Sharpe and participants at seminars and workshops at the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy, the University of Chicago, UCLA, Case Western Reserve University, University College Dublin, University of Rome, UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, San Francisco Federal Reserve, UCSC and APPAM meetings for comments and suggestions. We also thank Mike Rasmussen, Karen Micalizio, Katalin Miko, Bev McManus, Linda Cobbler, Zeke Rogers and others at Butte College for helping with administering the program and providing administrative data, and Samantha Grunberg, Miranda Schirmer, Luba Petersen, Caitlin White, Anita McSwane-Williams, Matt Jennings, and Emilie Juncker for research assistance. Finally, special thanks go to Pat Furr for providing computers for the study and for her extensive help in administering the giveaway program. Abstract

There is no clear theoretical prediction regarding whether home computers are an important input in the educational production function. To investigate the hypothesis that access to a home computer affects educational outcomes, we conduct the first-ever field experiment involving the provision of free computers to students for home use. Financial aid students attending a large community college in Northern California were randomly selected to receive free computers and were followed for two years. Although estimates for a few measures are imprecise and cannot rule out zero effects, we find some evidence that the treatment group achieved better educational outcomes than the control group. The estimated effects, however, are not large. We also provide some evidence that students initially living farther from campus benefit more from the free computers than students living closer to campus. Home computers appear to improve students’ computer skills and may increase the use of computers at non-traditional times. The estimated effects of home computers on educational outcomes from the experiment are smaller than the positive estimates reported in previous studies. Using matched CPS data, we find estimates of educational effects that are considerably larger than the experimental estimates.

1. Introduction
The use of computers is ubiquitous in the U.S. educational system. Nearly all instructional classrooms in U.S. public schools have computers with Internet access, with an average of more than one instructional computer for every four schoolchildren (U.S. Department of Education 2007). A growing number of state, school district and individual school programs have further increased the ratio of computers to students to as high as one to one through the provision of laptops to all schoolchildren and teachers (Warschauer 2006, Silvernail and Gritter 2007). The federal government has also played an active role in reducing disparities in access to technology, spending roughly $2 billion per year on the E-rate program, which provides discounts to schools and libraries for the costs of telecommunications services and equipment (Puma, et al. 2000, Universal Services Administration Company 2007). Schools themselves are spending more than $5 billion per year on technology (MDR 2004).

Despite the efforts to improve computer access in schools, a total of 45 million households in the United States (38 percent of all households) do not have computers with Internet access at home (U.S. Department of...
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