Making access to higher education more equitable and productive

The pandemic exposed the hidden depth of the digital divide faced by many college students, raising complicated questions for college and university officials.
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Danielle Rourke is senior strategist for higher education at Dell Technologies and advocate for online education.

It’s hard to fully imagine what life would have been like during than pandemic without modern access to the internet. Yet for an untold number of college students, who were forced to abandon college campuses and pursue their studies remotely this past year without adequate internet access, that’s largely what happened.

Danielle Rourke, Senior Strategist, Higher Education, Dell Technologies

For much of the past decade, the education community has devoted a great deal of attention — and rightly so — to the need for digital equity in America’s K-12 schools. From the time computers became part of the classroom experience, it became increasingly clear that students from families who lacked affordable access to the internet were at risk of falling behind their K-12 peers — and potentially their place in the digital economy.

A recent analysis by Common Sense and the Boston Consulting Group estimated that 15 million to 16 million K-12 public school students — or about 30% of all public school students — live in households either without an internet connection or device adequate for distance learning from home.

Fortunately, enlightened educators, along with the FCC, technology providers and others took collective steps to try to narrow this digital divide — providing laptops to students, expanding broadband capacity in classrooms, and even equipping school buses with wireless hotspots.

The pandemic, however, exposed a new dimension of the digital divide that many didn’t see coming: For a tier of college students — many from lower income families but also, working adults struggling to make ends meet — having access to computers and reliable Wi-Fi on campus made all the difference in continuing their education.  Then in a blink of an eye, those resources went away.

Students weren’t the only populations affected. There were also faculty and staff employees who were forced to work remotely in places where limited internet access handicapped their jobs just as colleges scrambled to operate online.

It would be easy to assume that many of these challenges will subside as colleges and universities reopen their campuses this fall. But the more I speak with higher education officials, the more apparent it is that the lack of equitable access to online resources for many students is a more significant problem than many institutions realized.

It has also raised a whole series of questions at colleges and universities about how best to respond to the digital inequity amidst their student populations. As one higher education CIO I spoke with put it: “There’s no school out there that has really completely figured it out yet.”

Colleges and universities, among other reasons, have a far more complicated operating environment than most K-12 schools; and they also serve a more dispersed and varied population, with students from ages 18 to 80 and at all different stages of life.

At most institutions today, for instance, it’s a given that students will bring their own computing device. But if colleges and universities were to make laptops or equipment subsidies available to those in need, where should they draw the line on who qualifies? Who would be eligible? Would eligibility be determined based on economic need? Or perhaps Pell Grant qualifications? Or perhaps based on the type of degree program they’re in? What about engineering or nursing students or typically have more extensive technology requirements? Would providing technology support jeopardize a student’s financial aid? How would those programs be administered? And of course, how do schools cover these extra costs?

Then there’s the question of facilitating internet access. In many cases, it’s not that broadband isn’t available to students off campus; it’s simply that students can’t afford it, given all their other household expenses.

The answers to these questions are trickier and more complicated than they might first appear. But the fact remains, when students fall behind, pause, or drop out of college —because they didn’t have the tools they needed outside the safety net of college campus — the statistics suggest these students won’t be coming back.

That’s why higher education leaders and the technology industry need to work together not only to gain a deeper understanding of the digital divide in higher education, but also to look for new and more creative ideas for helping to address it.

One place to start, certainly, is by more fully cataloging what colleges and universities are already doing at forums like EDUCAUSE and other higher education CIO councils.

It would also be worthwhile for colleges and universities to take a fresh look at how the technology sector might play a more active role. Advances in technology and IT services models makes it easier for higher education institutions to support the IT needs of students, faculty and university researchers more cost effectively today than was the case just a few school years ago.

For instance, it’s now relatively simple for higher education institutions to partner with technology providers to create virtual desktops and provide remote auto imagining of learning management systems directly to students and faculty, wherever they’re working from.

Colleges and universities might also consider the economic benefits of having IT support services models in place that allow for students, for example, to get their PC serviced when it breaks, so they have the reassurance that they will always have access. Technology providers can also help students get certified, and earn money providing break/fix support to supplement college technology departments.

There are in fact a lot of ways to rethink how colleges and universities can meet their students IT and wireless needs as a service, while allowing their campus IT departments to focus on more critical modernization projects.

These types of capabilities present some additional questions for higher education officials to think about. What might these alternative IT distribution and management programs look like? How might we operate them? Do we run them all ourselves with existing IT staff or partner with vendors taking more of a PC-as-a-service approach? Or do we pursue a blended strategy? How would we sustain these programs over the long run? Where should we get started.

Given Dell Technologies extensive partner and distribution network, and our years of commitment supporting higher education, we certainly have a few ideas on where to start.

There’s no question, the pandemic was as rough on colleges and universities as it was on their students. But in exposing the digital divide faced by many higher education students, it may also have ignited an important and much needed conversation on how colleges and universities can work smarter to make access to higher education more equitable — and productive.

Believing that most of you reading the article are interested in making sure that all students have equitable access to technology to support learning, are you ready to help solve this growing problem?”

Learn more about how Dell Technologies is partnering with colleges and universities to deliver a wider array of IT services.

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