To improve internet access for college students, we need better data
By: Kim Dancy, Alyse Gray Parker, and Nikhil Vashee
Reliance on the internet and related technology has been steadily increasing since the service first entered our lives in 1993. But the need has never been more intense than what we are experiencing now. In the midst of a health pandemic that moved everything from banking and job searching to doctor’s appointments and PK-20 educational courses online, the nearly 21 million Americans who do not have access to high-speed internet cannot connect to vital resources. Within that 21 million, we see alarming and persistent disparities along racial and geographic lines: only 61 percent of Hispanic and 66 percent of Black adults report having broadband internet at home, compared to 79 percent of White adults. Similarly, only 63 percent of adults in rural areas report having broadband at home, compared to 79 percent of those in suburban areas.
This digital divide is especially pressing for college students. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, students needed web-enabled devices and reliable internet connections to access content and course assignments from online libraries and learning management systems. Today, the pandemic has exacerbated this need, as nearly all colleges and universities have moved some or all coursework online, and access to shared spaces such as libraries or on-campus housing has been restricted. Many students are now primarily or exclusively taking classes remotely, using laptops, tablets, or even cell phones. This issue is especially concerning for students from low-income backgrounds from both urban and rural areas, where access to reliable, high-speed broadband is more limited. To make matters worse, without reliable and comprehensive data on student access, policymakers and researchers cannot accurately address students’ technology needs. Matching support with need requires a clear picture of students’ needs.
The good news? Better data is possible.
Better data would allow policymakers — at the federal, state, and institutional levels — to better assess disparities in internet access and develop solutions to address students’ learning needs. In this time of crisis and over the course of the eventual economic recovery, comprehensive data will be essential for policymakers and researchers to understand the impacts of the widespread shift to online instruction.
Improving data will enable the higher education community to give students the support they need — and deserve — amidst the current public health and economic crises. The student sample surveys from the Department of Education (ED) provide a unique opportunity to improve our knowledge of students’ connectivity needs. These surveys, including the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), Beginning Postsecondary Students Survey (BPS), and Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study (B&B), contain some of the best available postsecondary data because they offer a nationally representative window into the experiences and perspectives of students in higher education by combining institutional records with student interviews. However, these surveys typically have not included questions specific to students’ use of and access to technology like broadband or high-speed internet connections, internet-enabled devices, or the necessary hardware and software components necessary to fully participate in online learning. Collecting this information would allow policymakers to pinpoint students’ needs and more quickly work toward solutions.
To fill this critical gap in our current understanding of students’ technology access, ED took an important first step in December of 2020, adding several questions about students’ connectivity and technology needs to the 2020/22 Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS:20/22) field test. The questions are based on recommendations from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, Higher Learning Advocates, and the Postsecondary Data Collaborative, and will provide answers to key questions about student learning in the face of the pandemic. The addition of these survey questions is encouraging, and ideally they will also be added to future student sample surveys developed by ED.
To develop and implement evidence-based approaches to increasing equitable postsecondary success, it is critical to understand current levels of and patterns in broadband access and connectivity, as well as other technology needs. Using data to unpack inequities in connectivity and technology access will also enable a better understanding of how these disparities reflect and contribute to the racial and socioeconomic inequities in higher education outcomes. Ultimately, this clearer understanding will enable policymakers to provide the right supports to ensure that students — especially those most often left behind or marginalized by our postsecondary system — can access their education, complete their degree or credential, and realize the opportunity that higher education can provide.
Kim Dancy is a Research Associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP); Alyse Gray Parker is a Research Analyst at the Institute for Higher Education Policy(IHEP); Nikhil Vashee is Policy and Government Relations Manager at Higher Learning Advocates.