Opinion

Digital divide hinders fair recovery from the pandemic

An illustration of cloud computer linkages over L.A. at night. (Photo: TierneyCJ, via Shutterstock)

COVID-19 has tested our mettle and shined a light on long-held systematic deficiencies, forcing a re-prioritization of our “policy to-do list.” While the lack of equitable broadband access has served as a barrier to innovation, opportunity and connection among Californians for more than two decades, this inequity has caused more harm in one year of a pandemic than in the previous 25.

We know this issue colloquially as the “digital divide” – the gap between those with internet access at home and those without.

If we are to improve California’s chances of an inclusive economic recovery, we must address broadband for all now.

This pervasive divide particularly impacts lower-income, less educated, rural, Black and Latinx households where access is inconsistent and nearly half don’t have a broadband subscription. Across the state, close to 1-in-4 households are either under-connected or not connected at all.

When the world went virtual last year, these households went dark – no longer able to connect with loved ones, no access to help replace lost jobs and no way to attend school.

If we are to improve California’s chances of an inclusive economic recovery, we must address broadband for all now. We cannot afford to come out of this pandemic without solving the ubiquitous availability of the primary tool that helps bridge equity and opportunity gaps for all, especially when it comes to education access.

Since March, learning through our education systems – critical cogs in the wheel of economic recovery and mobility – has suffered daily as young and adult learners alike grapple with the transition to online living and learning. As the pandemic drags on, many college students close to earning their degrees and advancing in the workforce are struggling even more to stay enrolled and risk falling behind.

Education Trust-West reported that 82 percent of California college students who chose not to return to school cited uncertainty about online learning or new class formats, a decision undoubtedly impacted by students’ access to the internet and adequate technology.

With Gov. Newsom’s commitment to expand broadband access and efforts already underway in the Legislature, we can make progress toward broadband for all.

More damaging, California’s digital divide disproportionately impacts lower-income college students and students of color, further exacerbating the inequities present in higher education far before the pandemic. An estimated 25 percent of students of color and 29 percent of low-income students attending California colleges lack access to the internet, an adequate device for engaging in distance learning, or both.

To help combat challenges the digital divide has intensified for college students through the pandemic, Western Governors University (WGU) launched its Equitable Access Initiative to ensure student education can continue uninterrupted. The initiative, encompassing WGU’s Online Access Scholarship, Resiliency Grant, Opportunity Grant and other resources, aims to reduce barriers to postsecondary education that plague too many Californians.

But these efforts are only a small step forward. Much work remains to truly overcome the digital divide and its consequences. California leaders in the public and private sectors must work together to address these growing inequities before it’s too late.

Through the collaboration beginning with Gov. Newsom’s commitment to expand broadband access and efforts already underway in the Legislature, we can make progress toward broadband for all.

Proposed legislation such as Senate Bill 4 by Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach)would generate funds urgently needed to bring internet service to underserved areas of California. I strongly support this bill and encourage all Californians to speak up in support of this and similar efforts to help close the digital divide once and for all.

As we start to turn our focus from the pandemic toward a return to prosperity, we must do our part to equip all Californians with the necessary tools to contribute to the state’s long-term economic vitality, especially when it comes to our ability to access education and pathways to opportunity.

Editor’s Note: Richard Benbow is regional vice president of Western Governors University, a nonprofit, online university committed to serving underserved communities.


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