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Congress should help college students bridge the digital divide

Congress should help college students bridge the digital divide
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College students are flocking to McDonald’s and Starbucks this fall. But not for Big Macs or lattes. What students are looking for this semester isn’t on the menu; it’s the WiFi.

Students who lack access to reliable and affordable WiFi and laptops often suffer setbacks in learning because they can’t access or complete coursework at home. This is known as a “homework gap,” and it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. But worse, it’s become an education gap, where students struggle in all aspects of their education because they are more likely to be learning at home. And while this term typically relates to K-12 students, many college students are suffering from similar challenges as colleges have moved instruction online due to the coronavirus.

In a recent survey from New America and Third Way, 57 percent of college students said that accessing a stable, high-speed internet connection has been challenging as their education shifted online. A third of those students said it was a particularly big challenge. And worse, many faced increased costs to access high-speed internet—of those students who had to make purchases in the pivot to online learning, 17 percent of students said they had to purchase new internet service. Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of students reported concerns about being able to afford their non-education related bills due to the pandemic.

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New America interviewed students, faculty, and staff who echoed these concerns. A community college professor learned about her students’ struggles in the pivot online, saying, “I had 13 students and two to three didn’t have the internet at home, and a couple lived in areas where connectivity was a bit spotty.” One student also said connectivity was a big issue, especially with Zoom and video requiring increased bandwidth. Multiple students told us stories about taking exams or writing papers on their cell phones. 

This lack of access to critical technology will affect some students more than others, exacerbating existing inequities in our higher education system. In a survey commissioned by Higher Learning Advocates, Latinx and Black college students were more likely than their white peers to rely solely on mobile data to access course materials and stated that they experienced difficulty accessing course content when using mobile data. 

Black and Latinx students already complete college at lower rates than white and Asian students, and low-income students who receive Pell Grants complete bachelor’s degrees at lower rates than their peers from more affluent backgrounds. And that was before the pandemic. Adding internet and technology access challenges into the mix — on top of the public health crisis — will likely only worsen things for students who are already underserved by the higher education system. 

The ability to complete coursework virtually could mean the difference between completing a degree and dropping out, or worse — never enrolling at all. This will have consequences far into the future, particularly for the most vulnerable students. Research shows Americans who complete their bachelor’s degrees earn at least $1 million more than their counterparts with a high school diploma. Students who start college, but don’t complete, earn less are more likely to be unemployed and live in poverty. And because they often have debt, but no degree to show for it, they are three times as likely to default on their student loans. It’s clear college students are struggling. Congress must ensure all of today’s college students have the technology they need to succeed in their education.

Congress gave colleges and students some relief in the CARES Act, but it was just a bandaid on a much bigger wound. The CARES Act money reached only some students who needed it. Though multiple new relief packages were proposed, Congress has still not addressed the continued broadband and technology issues for students. Significant and meaningful proposals are on the table. The Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, introduced by Congresswoman Eshoo and Senator Klobuchar, would provide funds to students in need of broadband or equipment through institutions of higher education. Senator Wyden’s Emergency Broadband Connections Act would make low-income students eligible for an emergency broadband benefit. 

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Many Americans face challenges due to the pandemic and its economic fallout, and Congress has to balance many priorities. Still, support for college students has to be part of the way forward. The long term consequences of inaction on this issue are too significant, especially for the most vulnerable students. Now is the time to expand connectivity to ensure the digital divide does not leave college students behind. Congress must connect college students and alleviate the homework gap, not just for K-12 students, but for all students.

Now, more than ever, Americans must have the opportunity — and the tools — to pursue higher education, to better themselves, their futures, and their communities, and access to affordable high-speed internet is critical for that pursuit.

Wesley Whistle is the senior advisor for policy and strategy for New America’s Higher Education Initiative. 

Emily Bouck West is the deputy executive director of Higher Learning Advocates.