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Lack of Broadband Leaves Students Behind

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Michigan State University’s Quello Center reported this week that middle and high school students with high-speed Internet access at home have more digital skills, higher grades, and perform better on standardized tests, such as the SAT. Regardless of socioeconomic status, students who cannot access the Internet from home or are dependent on a cell phone for Internet access do worse in school and are less likely to attend college or university. The deficit in digital skills contributes to lower student interest in careers related to science, technology, engineering, and math. Here we excerpt the report’s major findings and conclusions.

Poor Internet connectivity has repercussions that go far beyond the ability to complete homework assignments

The study was designed to understand the repercussions of absent or poor home Internet connectivity on student performance and the associated costs to society. The focus is on Internet connectivity outside of school among middle and high school students enrolled in rural and smalltown schools. This report examines how differences in the type and quality of home connectivity (e.g., broadband vs. cell phone) relate to school performance and other student outcomes in grades 8-11, in fifteen predominantly rural, Michigan, school districts.

I. Rural students and low-income students are less likely to have high-speed Internet access at home

High-speed home Internet access is less common in rural areas, because rural areas are less likely to have an infrastructure to provide broadband Internet access. Students who lack home Internet access are more likely to be rural, low-income, and children of parents who do not have a university degree.

  • 53% of students who live in small-town or rural areas have high-speed Internet access compared to 77% of those who live in suburbs, and 70% of those in cities.
  • 9% of students in rural areas, 6% in small towns, 4% in suburbs, and 5% in cities have no Internet access at all.
  • Students from families near or below the poverty line (those who are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals) were 25% less likely to have fast Internet access from home and twice as likely not to have Internet access at all or to depend on a cell phone for Internet access from home.

Students without Internet at home are less likely to have alternative sources of online access, such as through neighbors, friends, family, and libraries. Of students who do not have home Internet access:

  • 35% live in a home with no computer.
  • 34% have no access to the Internet for homework when not at school (i.e., they have no access to a library, church, community center, or home of a friend, neighbor, or relative with Internet access).

Many students without Internet access at home depend on a cell phone to access the Internet when away from school.

  • 14% of students do not have dedicated home Internet service or a home computer, laptop, or tablet, but are able to go online through a cell phone.

II. The “homework gap” is only one small indicator of the differences in student performance related to inequalities in home Internet access.

At the level of secondary education, disparities in home access to the Internet are often referred to as the “homework gap.”

  • 82% percent of students in grades 8-11 report that they sometimes or often receive homework that requires Internet access.
  • Homework takes longer for students to complete if they don’t have home Internet access. Those who have no Internet access from home spend an average of thirty additional minutes on homework per night, compared to their peers who have high-speed Internet access.
  • 64% of students with no home Internet access often or sometimes leave homework unfinished because they lack Internet access or a computer. This compares to 49% of those who rely on cell phones, 39% with slow home access, and only 17% of students with high-speed home Internet access.
  • After controlling for ability to access the Internet from home, there is no difference between boys and girls, between students who are racial or ethnic minorities and white students, between those who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and those who do not, or between low-income and wealthier students, when it comes to the likelihood that a student will report that he/she often comes to class without having completed his/her homework.

Disparities related to home Internet access go well beyond student experiences with their homework.

III. Students with high-speed home Internet access do more educational activities online when away from school.

Away from school, the majority of students with high-speed Internet connections continue many of the online activities that they do at school: check their grades (82%), do research (82%), turn in homework (66%), look up class information (62%), and work with their peers on projects (52%). In addition, fast Internet access from home provides unique opportunities for students to collaborate and seek support from peers and teachers. Although these activities are not commonly pursued while at school, students with fast home Internet use their connectivity from home to:

  • message classmates for help with coursework (83%)
  • video chat with classmates about schoolwork (66%)
  • email teachers (54%)

Students without home Internet access and those who depend on a cell phones to access the Internet when away from school are less likely to participate in all online, educational activities outside of school. For example:

  • Only 22% of students who are dependent on a cell phone for Internet access create documents online, compared to 47% of those with highspeed home connections.
  • Whereas 45% of those with fast Internet connections at home read books and articles online, this is true for only 29% of those who rely on a cell phone.
  • 66% of students with fast home Internet access submit homework assignments online while not at school, whereas only 34% of students with cell phone access are able to submit their homework.

Students with slower Internet connections lag behind in their ability to participate in online activities that require higher bandwidth, such as video chatting with peers about schoolwork, doing research, and looking up classroom information. Although many students without a home Internet connection still manage to get online to do some education activities when not at school, they participate in all activities at significantly lower rates.

IV. The gap in digital skills between students with no home access or cell phone only and those with fast or slow home Internet access is equivalent to the gap in digital skills between 8th and 11th grade students.

Digital skills are related to competence with technology, but extend to broader abilities related to working efficiency, effective communication, and managing and evaluating information. Some skills are likely to come from formal education in schools, but others are related to frequency of use and online activities that are more likely to take place outside of school.

Differences in students’ access to the Internet outside of school account for differences in their digital skills.

  • Students with fast home Internet access have substantially higher digital skills than those without home access or those who have only cell phone access to the Internet.
  • After controlling for variation in home Internet access, there is no difference in the level of digital skills reported by low income, minority students, or students from single parent households (although girls and students with IEPs still reported lower digital skills).

V. Students with high-speed, home Internet access have higher overall grade point averages

Demographic factors explain some differences in GPA. For example, girls and students whose parents have more years of formal education tend to receive higher grades. Low-income, minority students and those from single parent households tend to receive lower grades. However, regardless of these factors, students with fast home Internet access obtain higher grades.

  • On average, students with fast home Internet access report an overall grade point average (GPA) of 3.18. This is significantly higher than the average 2.81 GPA for students with no access and the 2.75 average for students who have only cell phone Internet access.
  • The absence of fast Internet access at home has a significant negative relationship to overall GPA and grades in English/language arts and social studies, but not in math and science.

VI. Digital skills predict higher scores on pen-and-paper versions of standardized tests, such as the SAT and PSAT.

Although digital skills are acquired through experience with different technologies, these skills are related to higher proficiency in a range of domains pertaining to language, computation, and information management. The College Board’s SAT Suite of Assessments tests many of these domains, including evidence-based reading and writing and math. All Michigan students in grades 8-11 are administered pencil-and-paper standardized tests that are part of the SAT Suite of Assessments: the SAT (grade 11), PSAT 10 (grade 10), and PSAT 8/9 (students in grades 8 and 9). The preliminary SAT (PSAT) is used as a benchmark of student growth and performance, whereas the SAT is required in Michigan for high school graduation. Most colleges and universities use it as part of admission decisions and to award merit-based scholarships.

Prior research has found that low income and minority students tend to do worse on the SAT/PSAT. Regardless of income and race, findings show that students who have lower digital skills and those who depend on a cell phone for access to the Internet outside of school do considerably worse.

  • A student who is even modestly below average in digital skills (one standard deviation below the mean) tends to rank nearly 7 percentiles lower on their total SAT/PSAT score, 5 percentiles lower in math, and 8 percentiles lower in evidence-based reading and writing.
  • Regardless of digital skills, students who are dependent on a cell phone for their home Internet access averaged 5 percentiles lower in their national rank on the SAT and PSAT for evidence-based reading and writing, 6 percentiles lower in math, and 5 percentiles lower overall.

VII. Students who do not have high-speed Internet access at home are less likely to plan to attend college or university

Having a post-secondary education leads to higher earnings over a lifetime. The number of college and university-educated students in a region can attract industry from advanced-skill fields. As the U.S. economy continues to migrate toward technology intensive jobs across all sectors, individuals with post-secondary degrees have a better chance to work in high-skilled, high-paying occupations. Regions where educational attainment remains low are less likely to attract new technology-intensive industries.

  • 47% of students who have no home Internet access or have cell phone only access to the Internet plan to complete a post-secondary program. This compares with 60% of those with slower home Internet access and 65% of those with fast home Internet.
  • A student who has digital skills that are even modestly lower than average (i.e., one standard deviation below average) is 29% less likely to plan to complete a college or university program.

VIII. Students with higher digital skills are more likely to plan to enter a career in a STEM- or STEAM-related profession.

The demand for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals is growing and outpacing the supply of STEM college graduates. More jobs are available in STEM fields than in nonSTEM fields, and the average, entry-level salary in a STEM career is higher than in other career options.

  • Demographic factors, such as gender and parental education level, were better predictors of interest in STEM careers than variation in home Internet access. However, digital skills predict interest in STEM careers.
  • Students who are moderately lower in digital skills, e.g., one standard deviation below average, are 19% less likely to be interested in a STEM-related career.

IX. Poor broadband connectivity impedes the ability of individuals and communities to thrive in the digital economy.

In addition to the effects on educational outcomes, lack of fast Internet access and cell phone only access are associated with disadvantages that have lifelong consequences.

  • Lower grades and weaker standardized test scores associated with poor Internet connectivity reduce the chances of students to qualify for scholarships.
  • The lower interest in post-secondary education or STEM careers decreases lifelong income opportunities and the ability to find jobs in occupations where future demand is high.
  • Compared to communities with fast Internet access, those with poor broadband connectivity will experience fewer benefits from the digital transformation.

Conclusion

The report provides detailed evidence of the importance of high-speed Internet connectivity for educational and life outcomes. Whereas the negative effect of lacking broadband connectivity for homework completion has been known for some time, the study uses much more granular data and more comprehensive outcome measures. They reveal that poor Internet connectivity has repercussions that go far beyond the ability to complete homework assignments. In many cases, students will possibly be disadvantaged for life. Middle and high school students with high-speed Internet access at home have more digital skills, higher grades, and perform better on standardized tests, such as the SAT. Regardless of socioeconomic status, students who cannot access the Internet from home do worse in school and are less likely to attend college or university. The deficit in digital skills also contributes to lower academic success and to these students being less interested in higher-paying STEM careersStudents who have only cell phone Internet access, but no complementary devices such as a tablet or notebook computer, are as disadvantaged as students with no access at home.

The findings are an urgent call to address the state of affairs. An important first step is an assessment of the local situation. Although some factors hold across all rural and small-town communities, there are also location-specific components. The reasons for (dis)connectivity can be complex and include a mix of factors such as 1) no service is available, 2) Internet access being too expensive relative to the resources of the family, and 3) household decisionmakers that do not fully appreciate the benefits from subscribing to home broadband.

Each of these barriers requires different responses that range from measures to extend broadband service, to interventions to make service more affordable, and sharing information about how the benefits of broadband can be harnessed (while mitigating legitimate concerns). Although advances in terrestrial wireless and satellite technology will enable new and innovative solutions to provide high-speed connectivity in rural areas, a wait-and-see strategy may impose high costs on individuals, families, and communities. Communities across the United States are experimenting with innovative models to extend service to areas and locations not served by market-driven commercial service providers. The authors hope that the findings of this report will contribute to the design of effective interventions and responses that will help overcome the identified challenges and deficits.

Hampton, K. N., Fernandez, L., Robertson, C. T., & Bauer, J. M. Broadband and Student Performance Gaps. James H. and Mary B. Quello Center, Michigan State University. https://doi.org/10.25335/BZGY-3V91

For recommendations on addressing the digital divide see:

Sallet, Jonathan. October 2019. Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s. Evanston, IL: Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. https://www.benton.org/publications/broadband-policy2020s