How Congress Can Improve Broadband Access for Today’s College Students
By: Nia Ariel Davis Sigona, Government Relations Director, Higher Learning Advocates
When college campuses closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, college students lost more than access to lecture halls and student unions; they lost connectivity to the internet for their learning. The sudden shift to online learning has highlighted the challenges many of today’s students in college face in connecting to the internet. In a recent Higher Learning Advocates survey, 30 percent of today’s students reported challenges accessing the internet for course work or material. However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many American lacked affordable and reliable broadband access.
Now, many colleges have finished the spring semester online, are offering virtual summer courses, and are considering an either entirely virtual or hybrid model for students for the fall semester. Because today’s students who relied on their college campuses for access to Wi-Fi may have lost access to campus and other institutions such as libraries or coffee shops, where they may have had internet connection, they are now facing new and overwhelming challenges to their learning. The resulting reality for some of today’s students in college has been to drive to the nearest McDonald’s or Starbucks to access Wi-Fi from the parking lot, or to muddle through writing long term papers on their smartphones. These challenges may cause students to lag behind in their coursework, drop out for the semester, or choose to not return in future semesters.
Additionally, access to high quality broadband and technology varies. Low-income households are less likely to have a fixed broadband connection and more likely to solely rely on mobile broadband, which generally has insufficient download and upload speeds to complete coursework. And in a recent survey Latinx and Black respondents were more likely to answer that they relied solely on mobile data to access course material, and that they had difficulty accessing course content this way. Without federal policy to ensure equitable access to the internet, the increase in online learning is likely to exacerbate pre-existing inequities in degree and credential attainment for rural and low-income students.
Congress can take action to directly support today’s college students in its next legislative package. There are currently two bills that would improve broadband access for postsecondary students, the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act and the Emergency Broadband Connections Act.
The Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act (HR 6814, S 3701)
The Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act would establish a $1 billion fund at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to be used to provide funding for colleges and universities to pay for at-home internet connections for students in need. Specifically, higher education institutions could pay for routers, modems, WiFi hotspots, tablets, or laptops, as well as broadband service. The bill would prioritize funding for historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions, as well as rural-serving institutions. Institutions receiving funding must prioritize students eligible for need-based financial aid (e.g., Pell Grant) or means-tested social safety net programs (e.g., SNAP, Medicaid).
The Emergency Broadband Connections Act
The Emergency Broadband Connections Act would provide low-income households with an emergency broadband benefit. Eligible households would receive a $50 discount per month for internet service, or $75 per month for households on Tribal lands. Importantly, households with Pell-eligible students would be included in expanded eligibility in this legislation.
Policymakers committed to supporting today’s students must prioritize these emergency connectivity proposals in the next COVID-19 response package. And beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still work to be done on this issue; a students’ geography and income should not determine whether they can be successful in their pursuit of postsecondary education. Previous research has shown that nearly 20 percent of college students lack either a reliable device and/or service to get online. We look forward to continuing to work with Congress to enact bipartisan solutions for today’s students.