October 22, 2020
More than 100,000 low-income California college students lack internet access
SACRAMENTO - Pierce College theater student Sonny Lira was in the middle of rehearsing a script when his phone overheated and shut off, abruptly cutting off his performance.

This wasn’t the first time technical difficulties interrupted Lira’s community college class. Since Wi-Fi wasn’t good enough at home, Lira often practiced his lines over Zoom in his car, situated in the middle of a Starbucks parking lot. The constant disruptions frustrated his director, who discussed finding a laptop for him.

“I’d have to run home to get an ice pack and recharge (my phone) if I wanted to attend class,” Lira said.

More than 100,000 low-income college students in California, like Lira, lack access to the technology they need in order to participate in online classes, according to a new report from the non-profit education equity organization The Education Trust–West. It is among the first comprehensive looks at how the coronavirus pandemic intersects with the digital divide at California colleges.

Across hundreds of California colleges, about 102,000 students from lower income households and 145,000 students of color lack access to the internet, the report projects. (There is some overlap between the two groups.) When it comes to access to a laptop or tablet, the report finds more than 109,000 low-income students and nearly 134,000 students of color may be left out.

The digital divide is not a new problem in California: As of 2019, only about half of low-income Californians had broadband internet at home, compared with three-quarters of households overall, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-partisan think tank. But uneven access to technology poses a major barrier to students’ learning as the coronavirus remains uncontained and colleges begin planning for a spring semester online, said report author Abby Ridley-Kerr, a research and data analyst at The Education Trust–West.

“I think what’s surprising to me is no campus is untouched by this,” said Ridley-Kerr. “The assumption might be (that) at the college level, students are equipped to do this and handle it. But really, we see that across the board, there’s just huge numbers of students affected by the digital divide.”

The report is based on a statewide poll The Education Trust–West conducted earlier this year, which found that 15% of students from lower income households and 12% students of color do not have access to devices that enable them to learn remotely. Fourteen percent of lower income students and 15% of students of color reported a lack of internet access at home.

Researchers cross-referenced the poll results with federal enrollment data to come up with a rough estimate of the digital divide on each campus. They then assigned campuses a digital equity score ranging from one to five. An interactive map shows each campus’s ranking, with many of the blue dots representing campuses with the biggest projected divides clustered in the state’s inland areas.

Within the 23-campus CSU system, Humboldt State and CSU Dominguez Hills were likely to have the largest gaps in technology access, the report found, with an estimated 666 low-income students at the 7,000-student Humboldt State campus missing a laptop or tablet.

The findings about community colleges mirror an internal survey by the California Community Colleges of 50,000 students, in which almost 20% reported unreliable or nonexistent internet service. Black and Latino students were less likely to have functional laptops or reliable internet compared to their peers of other ethnic groups.

“The Ed Trust report raises many of the same issues that we found in our survey and are working to respond to,” Paul Feist, CCC vice chancellor for communications and marketing, wrote in an email.

A $120 million state grant to the system for coronavirus response helped close the digital divide among students who otherwise would be left behind during the transition to online learning, Feist said, but he added that more government support was needed.

“We need to keep up the pressure in Washington and urge Congress and the president to approve a meaningful stimulus package that includes resources to help students get the supports they need to succeed during this pandemic,” Feist said.

Three California congressional representatives and colleagues have introduced the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, which would provide $1 billion to colleges and universities to cover routers, modems, hotspots, devices and broadband for students. A new federal stimulus package has been stalled since May, with President Trump tweeting Tuesday that he would halt negotiations until after the November election.

Individual community colleges have offered their students assistance with technology, but have faced challenges. Sometimes students are not aware such help is available, and shipments of equipment can be delayed. (Source: CalMatters)
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