Submitted by Trishell Moore, AmeriCorps VISTA with the Institute for Emerging Issues
As a student working towards my Master Degree in Agriculture Education, and as an AmeriCorp VISTA, access to the tools I need to complete my education is critical. Like many other students across North Carolina, the digital divide is not an abstract problem, it’s very personal.
This year has brought a lot of change for higher education students. Many of us are ready for things to go back to normal and hope by the spring we will once again be able to walk the stage to graduate. For now, as the pandemic continues to take over the country and the number of cases rise, more campuses are closing their doors and moving to virtual. Unfortunately, this will lead many students, in both rural and urban areas, without reliable internet access or the devices they need to participate in their education. While distance learning and the digital divide have been around for awhile, this pandemic has made it more difficult to participate in online courses. Prior to the pandemic, students could access the Internet or a computer in a local library, computer lab, or even a coffee shop. But when these places are closed, students have limited options for completing their work. The data shows that we should be especially concerned about low income students, older students, Black and Hispanic/LatinX students and those who are in rural areas– students who were already facing barriers to academic success before the pandemic. Many fear the digital divide is going to widen the already existing achievement gap.
College and university leaders are helping as much as they can by making sure students have access to WiFi and devices by giving out laptops and providing WiFi hotspots and subscriptions, or in some cases allowing students to come on campus to access the WiFi in parking lots. Numerous letters have been sent to Congress explaining the problems students face with broadband access. As a result, the CARES Act includes several provisions for student support, and several other policies have been introduced, including additional broadband provisions in the HEROES ACT and the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act that would help provide financial support to colleges to help students in need stay connected and get the technology they need.
There is still more to be done to ensure that students have the access they need to be able to continue their education, and policymakers can help. We’ll be tracking these bills and others in the hopes that closing the digital divide may eventually become a reality.