San Antonio, Texas, the place my family currently calls home, ranks high among major cities with the fastest-growing number of COVID-19 infections. Add in Houston, Austin, and Dallas, and Texas now accounts for over 7 percent of the nation’s 3 million cases. It’s a harsh and disastrous reality that is wreaking havoc on families, local economies and the education system.
One key problem prevalent in many low-socioeconomic communities around the nation—like San Antonio, which now has the highest poverty rate of the country's 25 largest metro areas—is the digital divide. Digital divide is a term used to describe the gap present in society between those who have access to the internet and technology and those who don’t.
It speaks directly to a primary challenge facing our education system in this COVID-era: Some students and families have the means to succeed in a remote learning environment, and others do not.
Since the middle of the spring 2020 semester, the higher education sector, which employs nearly four million people across the country and educates nearly 20 million students, has had its doors closed, having moved in-seat courses online. Many students who were enrolled in online courses pre-pandemic experienced minimal changes to their academic experience. However, students who enrolled with the intent of receiving face-to-face instruction, laboratory time and academic support were thrust into remote instruction—a mode in which not every student is prepared to succeed. For students at community colleges especially, this reality may have severely hurt workforce certificate and degree hopefuls, as many career and technical programs tend to not lend themselves to modes of teaching other than face-to-face lab instruction.
By underscoring the digital divide in higher education, COVID-19 has exacerbated a societal issue that has been present for years, especially in our rural and low-wealth communities. The problem may worsen this autumn, as many colleges are planning for online or hybrid instruction for the start of the new school year. As institutions across the nation host a series of difficult conversations about how to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty and staff, they should also prioritize plans to ensure these groups have access to the technology they need to succeed.
That’s been a goal at my institution. St. Philip’s College, a publicly funded, two-year community college that is part of the Alamo Colleges District, holds the distinction of being the only dual-designated Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) in the nation. St. Philip’s College has been on the front lines of creatively partnering with its sister institutions to identify ways to address the socioeconomic barriers to higher education exacerbated by the pandemic.
Through our “Keep Learning Plan,” the Alamo Colleges District seeks to relieve the financial burden of tuition and fees through scholarships to students. The plan encompasses four major initiatives, effective only for the upcoming term, that include:
- Clean Slate, a program that eliminates a student’s outstanding account balance up to $500 from the fall 2019 or spring 2020 semesters.
- Expanded Summer Momentum, an innovative program that promotes degree completion by allowing currently enrolled students to take free classes in the summer.
- Reduced Payment Plan, an initiative that reduces the fee to set up a tuition payment plan for fall 2020 from $25 to just $1.
- No-Cost Testing, a program that covered the $32 cost associated with the required college-readiness Texas Success Initiative test.
Thanks to these programs, students are able to use more of their state and federal financial aid funds to support living expenses. This plan serves as a $10 million investment to help the district’s more than 65,000 students complete their academic pathways and support their aspirations toward social and economic mobility. Additionally, Alamo Colleges District invested $5 million in laptops, hotspots and other technology tools specifically for remote learning and working.
While not all colleges are fiscally able to take such bold action, thankfully the federal government acknowledged the challenges present within our nation’s higher education system by way of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which funds the $14.25 billion Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). By design, at least half of the money colleges receive through HEERF must be distributed as emergency financial aid to students whose learning has been disrupted by the pandemic. The funds have provided direct aid to students originally enrolled in ground-based courses and forced to transition into remote instruction, allowing them to purchase newly required instructional technologies.
Despite these historic efforts, one of the caveats of the HEERF program is that students must be Title IV eligible, a status not held by every deserving student. That means institutions now have the responsibility of ensuring that their students are best prepared to succeed in the new COVID-era.
As colleges gear up for the fall, it is imperative that they develop intentional strategies to ensure that students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, students of color, students with disabilities, veterans and students in the military can make progress on their academic pathways toward economic and social mobility. Institutions have an ethical responsibility to acknowledge the fact that not every student can purchase the technologies necessary to support online learning nor already has the skills necessary to achieve the suggested learning outcomes through remote means. Furthermore, colleges must support first-time-in-college students who had access to loaned technology through their high schools, since they may no longer be equipped with the tools they need to succeed academically.
Institutions must study the needs of their student communities, observe best practices from other institutions and develop new means of equitable support to the students who call their colleges and universities home.
Here are two recommendations for how higher education institutions can help close the digital divide:
Restructure Tuition and Fees to Provide Technology for All Students
At the time this article was written, more than 40 million Americans have applied for unemployment. The economic downturn has affected incoming college freshmen and returning students, and income once accessible to fund technology needs may no longer be available. However, institutions that strategically restructure their tuition and fee models to ensure that laptops, hotspots and required technology accessories are available to students can remove the economic barriers that were present pre-COVID and that have gotten worse since the pandemic. One possible approach could be to incorporate laptop and technology accessory needs, like hotspot activation and coverage, into the tuition and fees cost structure. A laptop loan program alone fails to meet the need if the student doesn’t have internet connectivity at home.
Develop Free Technology Loan Programs for Students
For institutions unable to specialize their tuition and fee models to incorporate technology costs, a separate technology loan program can be developed at the institution for currently enrolled students. In this scenario, students could contact an institutional department to request technology upon registering for classes and receive a loaned tool for the duration of their active enrollment. At the conclusion of their academic coursework, the technology could be returned to the institution and made available for the next student in need of support. Or colleges might try the approach piloted at the University of Michigan, which has started proactively inviting admitted low-income students to borrow laptops for their entire college careers, an arrangement that doesn’t affect their financial aid packages.
The war on the novel coronavirus will continue until widespread testing, medical intervention, a vaccination, and its distribution take place. Eventually, we will win the war on COVID-19. Sadly, the war on poverty does not appear to have an end in sight. Institutions of higher education must be prepared to ensure the academic success of their students, no matter their hardships. It is imperative for institutions to acknowledge and address the digital divide present within their own student bodies and aid in the fight for social and economic mobility by empowering students through technology.
Together we can close the gap on the digital divide. Together we can promote equitable student success in our new era of education.