The University Network

A New Bill Could Help Low-Income Students Gain Internet Access

In 2019, a year where people spend the majority of their waking hours looking at screens, it is easy for some to take technology, and more specifically the internet, for granted.

However, there is still a “digital divide” present in the United States, and for low-income individuals — especially students — life without regular access to the internet and a working computer is a daily struggle.

Take Yesenia Jimenez, a policy fellow at The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), for example.

Growing up in her family’s Los Angeles apartment, Jimenez didn’t have access to a computer or broadband internet.

“We couldn’t afford to pay $70 a month for internet plus the other installation fees housing authority required. Lack of internet access was particularly difficult for me in high school,” Jimenez wrote in an essay. “Often my teachers would assign homework that required me to go online. My solution was usually to use the computers at my local library until the building closed.”

Her problem worsened when she got to college.

“I had to balance a full-time course load, a part-time job, and a part-time internship,” Jimenez wrote. “My only spare time was at night, and the local library was closed by the time I could get there. The next closest public building in my neighborhood with free Wi-Fi access was the hospital. When I had no other choice, I spent late night hours working on assignments in the waiting area of the emergency room.”

Jimenez’s experience is all too common for students from low-income families.

In fact, nearly one in five teenagers can’t complete their homework because they lack internet access at home.

And for Jimenez and others, the problem follows them to college.

In a recent study, 20 percent of college students reported having issues maintaining access to effective technology.

Many of the students included in the study had laptops or smartphones, but they didn’t work consistently. And the students couldn’t afford to have them fixed or buy new ones. Additionally, many of the students lived off campus and didn’t have reliable access to the internet.  

“We find big gaps in the quality and reliability of the technology students own,” Jessica Calarco, an assistant professor of sociology in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Students of color and students from low-income families rely on older devices that are more likely to break down.”

But the “digital divide” could soon come to an end, thanks to a new bill introduced by the U.S. Senate that would invest hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding internet and technology access to less fortunate communities.  

If passed, the Digital Equity Act of 2019 would create two new annual $125 million grant programs geared to broaden digital equity and fund digital inclusion programs across the United States.  

“It will help ensure our communities  —  especially those that have been historically overlooked  —  don’t get left behind in our rapidly-evolving, technology-driven society,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the architect of the bill, wrote in a recent Medium post.

Fittingly, many education organizations have already supported the bill, including the State Educational Technology Directors Association, the American Libraries Association, the Consortium for School Networking, the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband, and others.

And a wide range of organizations have turned to Twitter to voice their support.

CLASP recently tweeted: “Many students in rural & low-income areas can only access the internet at a resource-constrained school or public library. @CLASP_DC is proud to support the Digital Equity Act of 2019, which will improve access to reliable broadband & promote #digitalinclusion.”

And the National League of Cities (NLC) voiced its support of the bill by tweeting: “NLC is proud to support the Digital Equity Act of 2019, which would increase federal investments in underserved and overlooked communities by providing them with the tools needed to navigate the ever-evolving technology of our world.”

In Washington, D.C., however, the bill has only been co-sponsored by Senate Democrats.

But the bill’s sponsors are determined to have the bill passed into law.  

“In 2019, we shouldn’t be a country of haves and have-nots when it comes to using the internet  —  and Congress should be a partner in helping our states, counties, schools, and more close the digital divide.” Sen. Murray wrote. “The Digital Equity Act is the right thing to do for families, and it is the right thing to do for our economy to make sure everyone is reaching their full potential.”