When schools closed last March, roughly 16 million U.S. K-12 students lacked access to a working device, reliable high-speed internet or both. In the months that followed, many states and school districts mobilized, using federal CARES Act funding, broadband discounts and partnerships with private companies to connect their students and enable online learning.
Those efforts have made a dent, according to an analysis from Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group and the Southern Education Foundation. As of December 2020, the number of students impacted by the digital divide has narrowed to 12 million.
This progress is “significant,” write the authors of a report that details the groups’ findings. But that’s still far too many students who remain unconnected or under-connected, especially as virtual learning continues in almost half of schools. What’s more, they write, is that the solutions devised in 2020 are “largely nonpermanent.”
“The majority of efforts since March 2020 are temporary, stop-gap measures,” according to the report. “In total, more than 75 percent of efforts will expire in the next one to three years based on current funding sources.”
Affecting nearly one-third of K-12 students in the U.S. today, “the digital divide predated the coronavirus pandemic and will persist beyond it if stakeholders do not seize the moment,” they write. Closing the gap for good will make learning more equitable, more flexible and more accessible, and will help break the cycle of poverty, the authors argue.
What follows is a summary of the report’s findings.
Why the Digital Divide Matters
Research shows that students who lack access to devices and broadband services have, on average, GPAs that are 0.4 points lower than their peers with reliable access. That seemingly small gap can grow into thousands of dollars of lost annual income over the course of a person’s lifetime and billions of dollars in yearly losses in gross domestic product, leading to unrealized economic potential for both the individuals and the nation.
Given how much schools have relied—and continue to rely—on the internet to enable distance learning in the last 10 months, students who have not been able to get online with the same consistency and quality as their peers are projected to have more severe learning loss and become more likely to drop out of school, according to studies referenced in the report.
Who It Affects
Southern states with large rural populations, such as Mississippi, Alabama and Oklahoma, have the highest percentage of students affected by the digital divide.
Students of color, including Black, Latino and Native American students, are disproportionately disconnected: While they make up 40 percent of the student population, they account for 54 of all disconnected students.
And students from low-income families, defined as those whose households earn less than $50,000 per year, make up just 30 percent of all students but 50 percent of those who experience connectivity issues.
Why It Persists
Three often-overlapping issues—affordability, availability and adoption—explain the persistence of the digital divide.
Money is an issue. Up to 60 percent of disconnected students cannot pay for internet access or devices. This affects Black students and students living in urban areas the greatest, the report finds.
About 25 percent of students live in areas that lack access to high-speed internet, an issue that impacts Native American students and students in rural communities the most.
And about 40 percent of students face other hurdles in getting online, such as language barriers. This especially impacts students who are English language learners.
What Progress Has Been Made
Several million more students have access to the internet today than in March 2020, thanks to a number of piecemeal approaches at the state and local levels.
“State and district efforts were significant and executed rapidly under very uncertain circumstances. Solutions were most successful when they were able to take advantage of existing infrastructure investments,” the report reads.
Among the successful examples cited are Texas’ “Operation Connectivity,” which led to the purchase of one million laptops and half a million hotspots for students; a program in Oklahoma that provided 50,000 devices and data plans to at least 175 districts; and Alabama’s Broadband Connectivity (ABC) program, which provided $100 million in vouchers to help 200,000 students access the internet from their homes.
On top of these state-wide efforts, many broadband service providers have offered free or heavily discounted internet plans and devices to students and families during the crisis. This includes T-Mobile’s Project 10Million, which is providing free data to 10 million households for five years, and Verizon’s Distance Learning Program, which is offering low-cost service plans to 38 million students.
Still, the authors write, these efforts are neither enough to connect all students, nor to keep newly online students connected long-term.
“Ultimately … funding support for these efforts has been insufficient to close the full distance learning digital divide. Progress is hindered by funding that is time bound and limited in amount, inadequate data on student needs, lack of universal infrastructure investment, and supply chain bottlenecks.”
What It Will Take to Close the Divide
It will take significant investment to close the digital divide for all students, for good. The report estimates the bill to be between $6 billion and $11 billion for the first year, and between $4 billion and $8 billion every year after that.
This can be achieved through policy solutions at the federal, state and local levels, but it will be aided by “leadership, coordination and capacity building across stakeholders to ensure buy-in and support execution.”
“Policy should enable bulk purchasing with transparent, affordable pricing and digital inclusion support,” the authors argue. “It should encourage tech-agnostic investment and encourage shared deployment to establish access where none exists and expand access where connectivity is insufficient (e.g., low bandwidth, low speeds). Success will require stakeholders to break down silos; partnering across public, private, and social sectors is needed to assess student-level needs and inform responses, develop and execute a broadband strategy, run effective procurement of affordable solutions, and offer IT support and digital inclusion support.”
More details on how this can be achieved are available in the report.