Students hurt by the digital divide
Millions of students in the U.S. don’t have access to high speed Internet services at home and it’s hurting their chances for academic success, but fixing the problem is not going to be easy or cheap
Image credit: flickr/Julien Menichini
As the parents of teen and a tween, one of the most common refrains my wife and I hear around our house from the kids is “I need the laptop to do homework.” Whether they’re researching a topic for a report or presentation, checking homework assignments online or downloading the latest Justin Bieber album for extra credit (I’m skeptical about that last claim of theirs), the computer and, more importantly, the Internet seem to be a requirement for them to do well in school. It’s hard to fathom how they would function well academically without broadband access at home.
Yet, as a piece in the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, many families and students in the U.S. are forced to try and keep up at school without high speed (or any) Internet access at home. According to the WSJ, of the households with teenagers and incomes less than $30,000, about one third don’t have such access. Some of these families simply can’t afford the monthly access fees, while others don’t have the option, since they live in rural areas without access to broadband networks.
As a result, in order to complete digital assignments, these kids are forced to find sources of free Internet access outside of school. While the library is often an option, hours can be limited, particularly in the evening. As the WSJ piece details, many of these students are increasingly turning to free WiFi at places like McDonald’s to complete their homework.
Needless to say, this is not ideal and it’s putting these children at a real disadvantage academically. How many children are really affected? Well, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2009 about 42 million households had an annual income of $35,000 or less and roughly half of U.S. household have kids under 18. Take a third of those and you get, say, 6-7 million households with kids in the U.S. that don’t have high speed access.
What disadvantage does the lack of broadband access mean to those kids? A 2008 study by the U.S. Federal Reserve found that teenagers with computers at home were 6 to 8 percent more likely to graduate from high school. While the Federal Reserve study was based on just having computers at home, it seems safe to assume that having computers with high speed Internet access has an even stronger effect on educational outcomes. So, there’s no doubt that lack of Internet access at home is negatively affecting millions of children in the U.S.
There is no easy solution on the horizon, either. According to the WSJ, the FCC estimates that making broadband access available to everyone in the U.S. would cost $45 billion and take 10 years, and that’s just to build out the infrastructure. Then there’s the question of who should do the building out. Wireless carriers? Cable companies? Satellite service providers?
Even if the infrastructure to support broadband in every nook and cranny of this country existed, there would still be the issue of who should help foot the monthly access charges for lower income families. Should the government subsidize it? Should schools help to provide home or mobile access to all students?
All in all, lack of high speed Internet access at home is a real and complicated problem in this country. What do you think the solution is? Should providers be required to build high speed access to corner of this country? Should all students have access to free or reduced cost broadband at home? Who should foot the considerable bills to make this all happen? Share your thoughts in the comments.