By Hillary Swetz , Freelance writer and veteran educator

The unprecedented events of 2020 taught Americans many things. They learned how much they rely on supply chains and how easy it is for a nation to run out of toilet paper. They learned more about disease and epidemiology than they were likely ever taught in schools. And they also learned how close many of their fellow Americans live to the brink of disaster.

One of these groups is low-income college students. They’re being smart about getting a degree; they’re taking advantage of government grants and programs, working hard, and might even have full-ride scholarships. They’re trying to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty and build a better life for themselves and their families, but it’s more difficult than most Americans are aware. Many low-income college students get stuck between the cracks of a university’s ivy-covered brick walls, especially when it comes to technology. This gap in informational resources is known as the digital divide.

Digital Devices

What causes the digital divide

The unprecedented events of 2020 didn’t cause the digital divide, but it did highlight the problem. In March of 2020, nearly all universities sent students home, then asked them to complete the same work as if nothing had changed. For affluent students with the latest mesh wifi systems and top-of-the-line devices, technology issues were limited. For low-income students, their struggles with the digital divide became transparent, as opposed to invisible as before.

Though it could be the subject of an entire piece on its own, the digital divide can be simplified into three separate but related problems: lack of internet, lack of reliable tech, and lack of digital literacy. While being a person of color or a first generation college student also contributes to the digital divide, we’re going to focus on low income students (those from families with incomes of less than $40,000/year) of which there’s a large overlap between the other two groups.

High-Speed Internet Connections

Many low-income college students attend community colleges and/or live at home with family. This means they can’t routinely take advantage of campus-wide wifi connections, especially if doing homework late at night after a shift at their part-time job. Instead, they must rely on whatever connections they can afford at home. Often, broadband access is prohibitively expensive for a student whose family income is eaten up by tuition fees. For low-income families, the net price of their education averages 84% of their yearly pay. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room for in-home internet.

Instead, low-income college students are often stuck with phone hotspots and borrow a signal from their cellular carriers. The other option is to get access from coffee shops, public campus buildings, parking lots, or local libraries. These are inconvenient, and trying to walk or drive around to find a strong enough signal can be stressful. 

One other barrier to internet access is rural areas where broadband access is truly non-existent, thanks to local infrastructure. Some places like Georgetown, ME supposedly have reliable internet according to the FCC, but speeds are basically on dial-up levels- less than one fifth that of the average download speed. These rural locations are often populated with mostly low-income individuals, and college students living here couldn’t get a good signal even if they could pay for it.

Reliable Technology

It would be impossible to get a two or four-year degree in America today without using a computer. Professors require students to type essays and homework, access online tutorials and learning software, and always be accessible by email. So if a student is already struggling to make ends meet and attend school at the same time, owning a personal device can seem like an enormous burden.

Many students will scrounge up and save for laptops or tablets with attached keyboards from low-quality retailers. They also might look at refurbished models at lower price points. Either way, the result is often the same: technology that frequently breaks down, which they then have to spend money to repair or replace.

Students in truly dire straits might also attempt to only use a cell phone for their college needs. But while you can send emails on a phone, it’s almost impossible to type ten page essays, hunt for sources online and try to run large applications on a simple phone.

Digital Literacy

Digital literacy refers to a student’s ability to find, identify, evaluate, and use information online. This is a skill not explicitly taught in schools, but is universally required to access a college education.

Students from low-income families often attend underfunded public schools, many of which could not afford student devices at a 1:1 ratio. That lack of exposure and time spent academically using technology is a critical gap in knowledge compared to higher-income peers. 

What must be included in the solution

Understanding the main problems contributing to the digital divide is important, but the next step is to look at how to address the situation. More tech isn’t the answer, despite what you might think about a problem called the “digital divide.” Many companies have spent tens of thousands of dollars throwing technology at the problem, only to find new hurdles they hadn’t anticipated. The digital divide is a much broader social, political, and educational problem.

To craft a solution uniquely tailored to your community, you need accurate data. There are a few key questions you’ll need to ask to start understanding the complexities.

  • How many students lack access to reliable laptops or tablets? (Reliable is a key word, since many students might have older-model or broken devices they can make do with, but functionality is compromised.)
  • How many students have broadband internet access at home? This means their internet comes from a source other than a phone hotspot.
  • How many students have limited access to the internet, but not at high enough speeds to perform functions at normal speeds?
  • How many of these students live on campus? If off-campus, where do students live? (In local neighborhoods, in further-off rural locations, in shelters, etc)
  • What percent of students with technology problems qualify for federal financial aid such as Pell Grants?
  • What language do students experiencing these problems frequently speak?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you can start building a solution tailored to the specific needs and capabilities of your community.

Part of the solution is to identify your allies. No university can solve the problem alone. Instead, you’ll need to partner with local non-profits, government agencies, and private companies. Many groups and organizations have a vested interest in bridging the digital divide, but it might take some sleuthing to find them.

Once you plan out a solution, you have to communicate it effectively. If people are having trouble reliably accessing the internet, emails and virtual ads won’t help. One nonprofit in Providence, RI used some ingenious ways to solve this problem when it rolled out free wi-fi for the neighborhood. They gave interviews in the Boston Globe, sponsored PSAs on the local Spanish radio channel, and even threw a parade down the streets, complete with signs and megaphones.

Once you have a plan and communicate it to those in need, the last step is making sure the intended audience can use it. Remember that digital illiteracy is a problem, too, and all your efforts will be wasted if the people you’re trying to help don’t know how to use search engines, social media, or their student dashboard effectively.

Bridging the Digital Divide

While many higher education institutions have known about and made efforts to solve the digital divide over the last decade, 2020 brought the issue to the forefront. It also unearthed complexities of which many universities were not aware.

Here are a few colleges, universities, and higher ed cohorts that are standing by their lower-income students stuck in the digital divide. They’ve listened to the needs of their students and then allied themselves with local governments, companies, and charitable organizations. As a result, they’ve designed creative solutions to local problems and are paving the way for others trying to do the same. 

Colleges That Offer Laptops To Students

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University Logo

Johns Hopkins leads the pack in bridging the digital divide. They understand that universities don’t exist in isolation, and so they’re committed to solving the problem on a broad scale, starting with the home of Johns Hopkins- the entire city of Baltimore.

Most recently, JHU published their 21st Century Cities Initiative to help pave the way for Baltimore to become a digitally equitable city. According to the report, “Too often, the solutions [to repair the digital divide] have been sought in silos—for schools, businesses, public housing, and residential areas—when we need a broad solution that will serve the whole city.” Instead of trying only to solve the problem for their students and campus, they’re looking outward.

In addition, they partner with two non-profits to teach local students IT skills, sponsor campaigns to supply low-income students with free laptops for college, and are publishing books & resources on how to bridge the divide so other communities can learn.

The Maine Community College System

The Maine Community College System Logo

As mentioned above, much of Maine is a rural place. The Maine Community College System includes seven locations spread out over more than three hundred miles. When schools shut down, many low-income students were left scrambling to complete even basic homework assignments due to their lack of technological access. MCCS saw the result of the digital divide and devised what they’re calling the Tech Promise.

The Tech Promise hits all three levels of the digital divide problem. It ensures free laptops for college students, internet connections, and tech education and support while students at Maine Community Colleges. Part of this will be fulfilled by purchased computers and hotspots, thanks to the federal CARES Act. The rest will be increasing access to campus-based computing resources.

Thankfully, much of this will be made easier by the recently-announced Maine Connectivity Authority and bipartisan legislation for universal access to broadband in Maine. This increase in internet access will help thousands of low-income and rural-based college students further their education affordably.

University of Houston

University of Houston Logo

The city of Houston in general is quickly closing in on the digital divide. This city is a registered Smart City and has partnership agreements with corporate powerhouses like Intel and T-Mobile to bring broadband internet access to every citizen in the next five years. It also hosts non-profits like the Hester House, part of whose mission is to lift up low-income communities through increased access and education surrounding technology.

The University of Houston isn’t content to let the city take all the spotlight, however. The information technology department recently launched an electronic waste management initiative designed to refurbish pieces of broken or outdated technology, including laptops and wifi-enabling devices like hotspots. They wiped them clean, installed the latest updates, software, & security patches.

Once they had the devices, they contacted every student, making sure they identified everyone who was struggling with the digital divide. Then, they highly discount the scrap price of the newly updated tech for students in need. Currently, UH is raising donations & seeking out other aid to help cover the cost of the devices.

Alamo Colleges District

Alamo Colleges District Logo

This is a group of five connected community colleges in the poorest major metro area in America, San Antonio. Here, 60% of high school students have no access to the internet at home, and most students from the Alamo Colleges District come from these surrounding communities. This collegiate cohort has won prestigious awards like the National Technology Leadership Award and a $425,000 grant from USAA due to its creative technical problem solving.

One of the five colleges, St. Philips, is the only school dually designated as both a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). They found a way to restructure tuition and fee payments to allow students to use federally designated aid dollars towards technology needs like free laptops for college students and hotspots. 

The schools also initiated the “Park n Learn” plan. They broadcast strong wifi signals all throughout the parking lots on the 13 campuses so students could access high-speed internet signals, even if they didn’t have them at home.

University of Michigan

University of Michigan Logo

The University of Michigan has been helping low-income students succeed with technology for years. They’ve been offering a free laptop for college borrowing program for select students since 2017. As part of the program, the school purchases brand new, university-owned MacBooks that students are allowed to use for their entire collegiate career. When they graduate, they can either buy the laptop to keep or return it.

Students need to meet certain financial thresholds to be eligible for the program, but the rewards are significant. Not only do they not need to purchase a laptop, but the devices are also covered under a technology insurance policy in case they’re damaged or stolen.

Still work to be done

Unfortunately, no one has yet created a perfect solution. If they had, they might be seeing more success in attracting and retaining low-income students and setting off a chain reaction of societal change. But many schools have developed parts of a solution and are making do with what they have.

In the future, we can hope to see educational, legislative, commercial, and community groups joining together solving the digital divide. The stark struggles of low-income students during the past year have provided a flashpoint to gather behind. Now is the time to build on the efforts these schools have already made and take the final leap to bridge the gap.

About Hilary Swetz

Hilary Swetz

Hillary was a veteran high school teacher before going rogue and becoming a freelance writer. She’s on a mission to make the world a more educated place, from preschool to graduate school, and loves to connect with others on the way.