Dell Inc. and America Online Inc. announced a partnership Sept. 27 to provide 5,000 low-income students with free refurbished personal computers and a year’s worth of internet access.

Company founder Michael Dell and AOL chairman and chief executive Jonathan Miller said the free equipment gives disadvantaged middle-school students the edge they’ll need to compete in today’s high-tech work environment.

The equipment is offered to qualified school districts through Dell’s “TechKnow” education program. To qualify, students must complete a 40-hour after-school program, where they learn how to take apart and rebuild computers and install software.

The program began in 2002 and has supplied 3,000 students in 21 school districts so far. Interested schools must apply with Dell to be considered for eligibility. (See for more information.)

Miller said he hopes the program can help bridge the gap for students who have computers and internet access at school but lack the same technology at home.

“Student achievement is at the core of Dell’s commitment to education,” Dell said.