Jan. 12, 2021
As the country continues to face a raging pandemic, the lack of access to stable, high speed internet is having devastating consequences for college students. Luckily, Congress provided a lifeline to many of these students in the COVID relief deal passed into law in December.
The historic $900 billion package took a couple of steps to alleviate internet access issues broadly, but especially for students in higher education. For one, Congress created the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, which allocated $285 million in new funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to provide grants to purchase broadband and other technology needs. Communities of color have been hit hard by the pandemic, and surveys have shown that their struggle to access reliable, high speed internet is no different. The legislation also requires colleges who receive the grants and use them to support students’ connectivity to prioritize Pell Grant recipients and other low-income students.
Congress also created the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which provides $3.2 billion to fund a monthly $50 subsidy to low-income households to offset the cost of broadband internet. For households on tribal land, the benefit is $75 per month — a big help for the many TCU students who face difficulties with internet access. A major win in this program is that someone receiving a Pell Grant makes a household automatically eligible.
These are significant and needed investments. College students are facing a number of hardships during the pandemic, including connectivity access problems. They are doing anything they can to overcome these obstacles and complete assignments while learning remotely, even resorting to using their phones. The difficulty of attending class and accessing and completing assignments like this impacting their academic performance. One New York student described being forced to write essays on her phone. She told us, “I'm getting points off because my formatting is off. And I've tried to explain to my professor. I can't really fix the formatting on my phone...We're, we're all just trying to make it every single day.”
She is far from alone. In a recent survey we conducted with Third Way, 22 percent of college students reported having a major challenge accessing a stable, high-speed internet connection. So, if that holds true across the country, that means that approximately 4 million students enrolled in higher education are struggling with internet access, while the vast majority are supposed to be completing their coursework online. And this is having a larger, more worrisome effect: people are not starting or continuing their education. A forthcoming New America survey asked why people stopped out of community college or changed their mind and didn't enroll in the fall semester, and nearly one-fifth said they did not have the technology or internet access needed to take classes online.
For these students, the pandemic and their lack of access to high-speed internet may negatively affect the rest of their lives. The likelihood of a student re-enrolling in college after they have dropped out is low: only around 30 percent return to finish a degree. And without a degree they face a life of lower wages and job insecurity.
The problem of internet access is complex. In our interviews we heard stories of students who couldn’t afford to pay for high speed internet and students who lived in places where high-quality internet was not available. While colleges and communities are heroically providing stop gap support in the form of WiFi hotspots and access to the internet in parking lots, that is not sufficient.
Congress’s actions in December are a great start but we can, and should, do more to make sure that all students have access to reliable, high-speed internet. For a start, when the $3.2 billion runs out for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, Congress should make it permanent. Doing so would help millions of Pell students in the years to come.
Congress should also consider reforming and increasing funding for the E-Rate program, allowing the benefit to support students’ home internet connection. They should also expand E-Rate to benefit students enrolled in postsecondary education. The Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, introduced in the last Congress by Congresswoman Eshoo and Senator Klobuchar, would provide funds to students in need of broadband services or equipment through institutions of higher education.
Now is the time to support increased broadband access for students struggling to stay enrolled in college. The investment will pay dividends with a better educated populace and more access to a utility that has become increasingly necessary to participate in the modern world.
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