Equity, Access and COVID-19

Poverty, Race Linked to Lack of Internet for Students

A recently published study from Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that that both poverty and race affect young people's access to the Internet. That's an important point when almost every K-12 school has shifted to online instruction, a report on the research noted. Without internet, how can students attend class and fully participate in learning opportunities?

The research project quantified how much less likely low-income and non-white children and youth were to have access to the internet than their peers. As the researchers wrote, "The empirical insights highlight how the digital divide might exacerbate existing educational inequalities in the face of school closures due to social distancing."

The study relied on data from the American Community Survey, last done in 2018. Administered by the U.S. Census Bureau to about three million households, that survey looked at students in grades 1-12 to record the level of internet access in their households by type (broadband, dial-up, cellular or satellite) and whether the households received food stamps. The same survey took data about students' age, race, disability status and the type of housing in which they lived. The CMU and MIT researchers also looked at results of students' 2018 math tests in the districts that were part of the American Community Survey, data that can predict future income.

The researchers found that more than three-quarters of students (77 percent) had access to high-speed internet. The main form of alternative internet access besides broadband was via cellular connection, which the authors suggested delivered a "less than satisfactory" experience for schoolwork that relies on high-bandwidth operations such as video conferencing. Another 5.5 percent of students had no access at all.

The researchers concluded that both poverty and race impair access to the internet:

  • A fifth of students (21 percent) live in households that receive food stamps; they were 16 percent less likely to have access to high-speed internet and 10 percent less likely to have access to internet at all.

  • Those homes without kitchen facilities were 30 percent less likely to have access to high-speed internet.

  • African American children and youth were eight percent less likely to have access to high-speed internet and four percent more likely to have no internet access.

  • In areas where poor and non-white children had relatively lower test scores, they were less likely to have access to the internet.

Across the entire study, children of races other than white or Asian, or multi-racial children, were less likely to have access to the internet. Even in areas where a greater number of people have access to the internet overall, the gap was "persistent" for children and youth who are African American, Latinx, low income, participate in English as Second Language programs, and/or lack adequate housing.

The only exception that surfaced was those areas where private industry has brought in internet access, communication and technology for the sake of tech workers. In those places the researchers found "positive spillovers" for disadvantaged students, in terms of increasing their relative likelihood of having access to high-speech internet.

The authors emphasized that the study was correlational, not causal. And it didn't look at specific school data or count how many schools were using internet-based instruction.

"Online instruction is feasible only if children and youth have access to the internet at home. Although social distancing may be necessary in the wake of this pandemic, the digital divide may exacerbate existing educational inequalities," said Ananya Sen, assistant professor of information systems and economics at CMU's College of Information Systems and Public Policy, who led the study, in an article about the research.

"At the moment policy leaders are debating the extent to which future stimulus packages should subsidize broadband internet," the report noted. "Our results aim to highlight a particular area where subsidies may be particularly useful to avoid reinforcing existing educational disparities."

The research was published by SSRN and is openly available as a PDF in a browser through the SRN website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.