The pandemic highlights the need of connectivity for college students
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August is normally when millions of students head off to colleges across the country, but these are not normal times.

The U.S. continues to struggle to contain the pandemic and with COVID-19 cases and deaths continuing to rise, many colleges and universities are opting to keep campuses closed and conduct fall semester classes virtually through remote learning. This is a wise choice rooted in science and public health expertise to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But it is also forcing colleges to consider the painful reality that many students will be researching and writing term papers using their cell phones because too many lack laptops and internet service at home.

Our country’s digital divide now threatens to further widen the inequities in our higher education system unless Congress acts to fund connectivity for students.

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Tens of millions of Americans lack high-speed internet at home. BroadbandNow Research estimates that 42 million Americans lack high-speed internet, while Microsoft’s research shows that 163 million Americans are not using the internet at broadband speeds. Such inequality in the wealthiest nation on the planet – a country that has produced countless technology companies and leads the world in innovation – is shameful.

The root of this problem is two-fold. First, too many communities lack broadband connections. Second, too many families can’t afford broadband. I’ve long championed policies to fix these deeper issues which require long-term solutions. Right now, we have to support the immediate needs of college students who depend on the internet to complete their studies.

Our nation’s 20 million college students are a diverse group and many don’t match the stereotypical portrayal of a college student. A quarter of college students are parents. Over one third are older than 25. And nearly two-thirds have jobs. As diverse as their lives may be, they share one commonality: they need the internet to complete their studies.

Even before the pandemic, access to the internet was a necessity for students to enroll in classes, research, write papers, and communicate with professors and peers. Now, high-speed internet is a requirement for attending lectures, reviewing class materials, and submitting assignments. If you lack a strong internet connection, you can’t participate in a class conducted on Zoom.

It’s not just internet service that’s an issue. Students who lack internet-connected devices are also at a disadvantage. Before the pandemic, students who lacked their own laptops relied on computer labs to write papers and complete assignments. Researching and writing papers on cell phones is not an acceptable solution.

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It’s for these reasons I introduced the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, which establishes a $1 billion fund for colleges and universities to pay for at-home internet connections for students in need. Higher education institutions can use the funding to pay for routers, modems, wi-fi hotspots, tablets, or laptops, as well as monthly broadband service for students. Students must have devices and internet service to effectively participate in remote learning.

Funding in this bill is prioritized for institutions that need support the most: historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, Tribal colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, and rural-serving institutions.

Most importantly, institutions receiving funding under the legislation must prioritize students in need, such as students eligible for Pell Grants, students receiving support from social safety net programs like SNAP and Medicaid, and students receiving unemployment compensation.

Over 60 organizations have endorsed my legislation, including public interest organizations and groups representing universities and higher education, civil rights, local governments, and local Chambers of Commerce.

Our country’s digital divide is a national embarrassment that requires long-term solutions. But Congress can take action now to help students in the short-term and avoid a much larger crisis of inequality in higher education. Now is not the time to be penny wise and pound foolish.

Our nation needs today’s students to be able to continue their learning to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Representative Anna G. Eshoo represents California’s 18th District.