The bluntest answer to this question is that they don’t. It is extremely disappointing to realize, but buried in the fine print of these free laptop deals and glaring up at you from your tuition statement is what schools call a technology fee. While you won’t pay anything up front for the device you receive, many schools (if not all schools) will tack that added cost onto your tuition, what’s even worse is that they charge you considerably more than you would have just spent buying it outright.

Many online colleges offer free laptops, and that inevitably leaves a few of your scratching your heads. Colleges like Northwestern Missouri State University, Chatham University, Full Sail University, Purdue University, and more all offer varying degrees of free technology — or they used to. Colleges have begun to shy away from making these claims now that researchers across the web have uncovered the truth; as the adage goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Northwestern State University provides its students with a 14-inch HP EliteBook 840 G1 (retail: $399) that they will have to return when they graduate. You shouldn’t complain about the value of something that is being given to you, but for a technology fee of $280 per semester for a laptop that the school retains, you would think that they would provide students something of higher quality. HP laptops are reliable, but to truly get a good HP computer, you would be out way more than $399. In addition, any software that you might need like Microsoft Office 365, or Adobe Photoshop, is solely your responsibility to purchase. What’s more, the school doesn’t offer students any kind of warranty, insurance, or protection plan. If there is a manufacturing issue, a virus, or some drink-spill or dropping mishap, you will have to pay $1,500 to replace the laptop. That is almost four times the retail price, on top of the $280 added to your tuition each semester, all for a laptop that you have to hand back over when you have earned your degree. Colleges have a variety of income streams, but the most prevalent of course is the tuition that students pay. To cover the costs of these laptops that they provide, they simply add fees or additional charges to the tuition that you are already paying. In some instances (like at Full Sail University), your free laptop can earn the school up to $10,000!

How can online colleges offer free laptops?