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Working Together to Close the Digital Divide for Our Community’s Students

January 3rd, 2022

Millions of students are facing a challenge that keeps them from succeeding in school.

The digital divide in education is the gap between students who have reliable access to an adequate device or internet and those who don’t. The gap has existed for decades – ever since personal computers gained popularity – but during the COVID-19 pandemic our community saw how deep the challenge runs.

This challenge impacts all of us, not just students. Two studies, from Michigan State University and University of Miami, respectively, show the connection between grades and future success. Michigan State researchers discovered a connection between access to broadband internet and higher GPAs among students. While the University of Miami study found that students with higher GPAs have higher earning potential. Paired together, the studies demonstrate the multi-generational impact of increasing connectivity for individuals.

On top of the benefits for individuals, when students are more prepared to go to college and have more opportunities to secure high-paying jobs our local economy grows stronger. A skilled, high-performing workforce is essential to keeping our region thriving today as well as decades into the future.

If the digital divide is so hurtful, why does it still exist? Most experts agree there are three main reasons.

  1. Affordability 

There is a strong correlation between a family’s income and access to high-speed broadband. The Pew Research Center reports that more than two in five families with incomes below $30,000 do not have broadband. But in higher income brackets broadband connection is more common. Among households that make between $30,000 and $99,999, 81 percent have broadband.

In addition to the expense of a connection, new devices can be costly. U.S. PIRG reports the average family spends $1,480 on new electronics every year. For a family with an annual income of $30,000, that represents 5% of the family’s budget. The expense can impact families of color harder than white families since due to discriminatory pay practices people who are Black, Latinx and Native American are often paid less for the same job as their white counterparts.

  1. Accessibility

According to Common Sense Media, 15 to 16 million students don’t have access to adequate devices or internet connections. That’s about 30% of all students in the U.S. But when the numbers are broken out by race and geography, it becomes clearer that students of color and rural students disproportionately must deal with the challenges of the digital divide.

Students of color represent about 40% of the total school population, but 55% of Black, Latinx and Native American students are part of disconnected populations.

Like students of color, rural students are unequally impacted by the digital divide. Common Sense Media notes rural students make up 12% of the total school population but comprise 20% of the disconnected population.

These students may face connectivity challenges because of factors that are out of their control. Discriminatory housing practices often force families of color into under-resourced neighborhoods that lack high-speed internet. Unlike other common services such as electricity or telephone access, internet connection is not treated as a public utility. That means demand and interest in profits have largely dictated where and when infrastructure like broadband internet are introduced to communities; often leaving out rural communities and communities of color.

  1. Adoption 

In some areas of our community where accessibility and affordability have been addressed, adoption of technology can still lag. According to Common Sense Media, insufficient digital skills, language barriers, discomfort with providing personal data, family mobility, or lack of interest might keep families or individuals from adopting technology. As many as four in ten disconnected students don’t have access to technology even though they live in areas with affordable and accessible services.

Addressing all three of these barriers will take time and resources. In coordination with community partners across our region, United Way of Central Ohio is working to close the digital divide. During the pandemic, we provided grants to local nonprofits who helped students and families access the resources they needed to continue learning. Thanks to committed partners and generous donors, we to plan to continue these efforts throughout 2022 so more kids in our community can thrive.

You can help make this happen by giving through your workplace campaign or making an online gift today.

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