The Class of 2020 is graduating from a distance. We all want American life to return to normal as quickly as possible, and hope that the fall will see students walking across college campuses again. But we have to gird ourselves for the possibility that might not happen.
That means we must prepare now for the potential that colleges and universities that swiftly shifted to online instruction as the pandemic swept through the country and forced campuses to shutter will have to continue, and even ramp up, those efforts in September.
Sadly, though, the reality is that millions of Americans — in rural and urban areas alike, and including many underrepresented minorities — lack the reliable broadband connections needed to access postsecondary and K-12 education in a nation that remains in partial lockdown. This longstanding digital divide for learners of all ages has morphed into a divide that is keeping these vulnerable students offline during a critical period.
This means that students living in online “education deserts,” who already face significant barriers to success, are being locked out of the postsecondary education that is so important to so many individuals’ prospects for future prosperity and civic engagement.
Distance education isn’t new, of course, but the coronavirus pandemic made it a reality everywhere. We already knew there was a digital divide, but we avoided fixing the fundamental inequities by counting on students to search out libraries, computer labs and coffee shops, or to complete college work with only a cell phone or shared computer.
Of particular concern are low-income students, older students, black and Hispanic/Latinx students, and students from rural areas, all of whom face particular barriers to access and success even when on campus.
There are many reasons why the federal government, as well as the technology and communications sector, should step up and eliminate the digital divide — but none more important or urgent than ensuring that students can continue their educations, from primary school to college.
Most college leaders are doing the best they can. Many institutions are attempting to ensure that all students have access to Wi-Fi and technology, distributing laptops by the thousands, providing Wi-Fi hot spots and reorienting campus wireless networks to extend access into parking lots.
But that’s not always enough, especially for students who already live in education deserts, which means they struggle with spotty cell signals as they try to access mobile broadband, or they might have to drive an hour or more to work from within their car in a college’s parking lot.
As a June 5 letter from higher-education associations asking Congress to address problems with student broadband access notes: “While the closure of physical campuses has undoubtedly helped to save lives and slow the spread of the coronavirus, the related emergency transition to remote learning and services has highlighted the significant digital divide that exists between students from low-income and/or rural areas and their peers.”
Some solutions have been proposed. One of these is the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, newly introduced in Congress, which would provide financial support for institutions to help students get and stay connected. But there are other, existing options that can be built on as well.
Every year about $8 billion is spent by the Federal Communications Commission to bring communication services to rural communities and low-income Americans. This current pot of money serves many needs, from K-12 schools to libraries and telemedicine. But the nation must expand the reach of programs to provide access in unserved or underserved communities, both rural and urban, to help bridge the gap for the 21 million Americans who fall on the wrong side of the digital divide.
There are several steps that policymakers can and should take to shrink the digital divide that too many college students currently face.
The Universal Service Fund program known as E-rate helps K-12 schools and public libraries address technology infrastructure needs, which includes providing onsite broadband access to students and patrons.
Congress could allocate emergency funding to schools and libraries that expand broadband access to their communities, which could provide another avenue for “broadband-insecure” college students to get online as well. The higher-education community looks forward to working with our K-12 and public library partners in this shared effort.
Another tool the federal government has to address the challenges that so many are facing is the Lifeline program, which helps provide devices and internet access to low-income consumers. New funding for this program could quickly be used to help college students in need of better internet access, especially if eligibility requirements are adjusted, even if only on an emergency basis, to include federal financial-aid criteria.
Finally, investments in the country’s research infrastructure strengthens the ability of scientists and public-health officials to combat the pandemic and develop the medical treatments necessary to defeat it. As the country inevitably turns to addressing its now-obvious broadband infrastructure needs, it is critical that our research and education networks receive the funding they need to sustain and advance these vital research activities.
In an economy likely to be struggling for some months or even years to come, a college degree or credential will be even more crucial. We can’t afford to lose our hard-earned momentum in educating our people. More resources must be made available now to focus specifically on the issue of ensuring that no college student gets lost in a broadband desert.
Otherwise, even when the immediate measures to promote physical-distancing are revised and some students are able to return to campus, we risk leaving far too many behind.
This story about broadband access for K-12 and higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Jamienne Studley is president of WASC Senior College and University Commission, a higher-education association committed to student success and an institutional accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.