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November 24, 2020

Future of Higher Education

The Digital Divide

Leaving Learners Offline and Out of Mind

IT Hardware

By WGU Team

The digital divide—the inability to access affordable broadband internet—prevents millions of people across the U.S. from accessing opportunity and is particularly acute in communities of color. The onset of the 2020 pandemic and the shift toward at-home work and learning has only intensified the crisis. Too many people are offline and being left behind, compounding structural inequities of race and class. The costs of ignoring digital inequality are fiscally and morally untenable, and WGU is taking action to create access for all aspiring learners. 

WGU was founded to deliver higher education access to underserved populations. Since its inception, it has been exclusively online, competency-based, and student-centered. WGU’s design has made it accessible to thousands of students whose work and family obligations don’t permit them to attend classes in specific locations on fixed schedules. But major gaps in digital access mean that those most in need of opportunity are least able to avail themselves of it. In response to COVID-19, WGU has made $1 million in Online Access Scholarships available to ensure that students have broadband internet and device access during their course of study. But the digital divide is bigger than any one institution; it demands collective action. 

To highlight the problem and drive solution-driven conversations, Western Governors University (WGU) partnered with the National Governors Association (NGA) on a white paper entitled Governor Strategies to Expand Affordable Broadband Access. Solutions proposed in this paper are focused on access, affordability and quality, and include recommendations for:

  • Infrastructure. Leaders must take a closer look at existing infrastructure and find ways to build out broadband capabilities through diverse governance structures, policies, partnerships. This is an issue that is particularly urgent in rural areas, where geographical and funding limitations lead to digital access deserts and cut off hundreds of thousands of residents from education, professional opportunities, and basic day-to-day needs such as healthcare, medicine, and groceries.

  • Affordability. According to the FCC, adults making less than $30,000 annually are half as likely to report having home internet access as adults making $75,000 or more. With 56% of Americans living below the poverty line and even more facing unemployment this year, the broadband affordability deficit will continue to grow. 

Governors across the country are taking the lead to build lasting solutions that reach beyond stop-gap measures. They have established and updated governance structures, kickstarted investments using strategic partnerships, and expanded internet hotspots in libraries, schools, and other government buildings. In the long term, many are coordinating lower-cost infrastructure projects by streamlining the procurement process, reducing regulatory barriers for new project deployments, and making use of private-public partnerships. 

We are entering a crucial window of time when new legislators at the state and federal levels will convene to consider budgets, stimulus, and distribution plans. America’s most vulnerable populations are falling behind, and government, community, and industry leaders must join forces and act now to close the digital access gap. It is imperative that they understand why every household should have access to reliable and affordable internet and act accordingly. WGU, NGA, and like-minded organizations nationwide urge lawmakers to take action on the digital divide in their first 100 days in office. 

For more ideas and solutions on how to improve access, quality, and affordability in education and beyond, check out WGU’s policy playbook.

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