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December 18, 2020

Future of Higher Education

Bridging the digital divide.

Man facing dead end road

By WGU Team

What is the digital divide?

Twenty-five years ago, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) published the first report on what is widely known as the "digital divide." That report—"Falling through the Net: A Survey of the ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America”—suggested that the nation needed "to go beyond the traditional focus on telephone penetration as the barometer of this nation's progress toward universal service," calling a computer and modem "the keys to the vault" containing "the riches of the Information Age."

Flash forward to 2020 and the necessity of a reliable, high-speed connection for full participation in education, democracy, and the economy cannot be overstated. Yet universal service is still a far-off goal.

  • FCC data estimates that 18.3 million Americans lack access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at threshold speeds (25/3mbps) and about 14.5 million of those Americans live in rural areas.
  • The Census Bureau's American Community Survey concluded that there were three times more households in urbanized areas that did not have broadband in their home - many of whom have access but may not have the digital skills to find a connection useful, or find the monthly cost prohibitive.
  • Many of the "have nots" are also from historically disadvantaged populations. On tribal lands barely 60% of people have broadband access. Forty-four percent of households with incomes below $30,000 to not have home broadband. Further, Black and Hispanic households are less likely to have internet than their white counterparts.

Why is WGU involved?

At WGU, we believe that education is the surest path to opportunity. We were designed by 19 U.S. governors to provide education access to the underserved and those left out of traditional higher education’s promise, and we built a system that works. Last year, WGU alumni reported an average increase in income of $22,800 within just four years of graduation compared with their salary pre-enrollment.  WGU graduates also reported stronger career satisfaction, competency, and employability than their counterparts from traditional brick and mortar schools, almost doubling the average wage of those without a degree. We want to make that path available to everyone. Right now, partially due to the digital divide, it is not.

The digital divide has been a barrier to equity in the U.S. for over two decades, but with concerted federal, state, and private efforts, we can bridge the divide. The coronavirus pandemic has made building the bridge more urgent than ever for telecommuting workers and students of all ages. We ask policymakers, business leaders, and even everyday citizens to join us in taking action to make reliable internet accessible to all.

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