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What Higher Ed Can Bring to Closing the Digital Divide

Community and technical colleges are particularly well-suited to partnering with governments to bring broadband and digital literacy to underserved urban and rural communities.

In December, Congress did something rare by today’s standards: In bipartisan action, lawmakers approved $900 billion in a second COVID-19 relief package, of which $7 billion was set aside for broadband. Now, President Joe Biden has proposed a more than $2 trillion infrastructure package that earmarks $100 billion for the deployment of broadband to underserved rural and urban communities. Public officials now must turn their attention to how best to bring high-speed Internet service to those trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide. Partnering with higher education can be a major part of the solution.

The task is complex and multifaceted. There are areas in rural America where broadband is unavailable altogether or only at speeds too slow for most functions. In many cities the cost of high-speed Internet is prohibitive, and in many homes there’s not enough space for multiple workstations, causing children and parents to have to compete for computer time and often work on top of each other. Above all, in both rural and urban communities there are serious problems with digital literacy — parents and kids are not familiar enough with computer operation, software use, or how to conduct business or learn via the Internet.

To address this plethora of issues, partnering with higher ed makes good sense. States and local governments do not have the time, personnel or expertise to successfully implement such a far-reaching initiative. Further, as the pandemic subsides, public officials will have their hands full with reopening governments, revising budgets consistent with available revenues and managing the transition of their workers from home back to the office.

The mission of higher education institutions aligns closely with the goal of training a huge public and building national broadband networks and infrastructure. Colleges often serve as incubators of learning and innovation. Beyond this, they can provide a limitless supply of student workers to serve as trainers, facilitators, network designers and ambassadors for broadband’s best practices. Students majoring in fields that range from computer science to social work can be among the pool of potential employees.

The timing now for implementing a national broadband program is much better than in the recent past. More than 130 million Americans have gotten at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. And while some regions are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, in most parts of the country new cases have declined. These breakthroughs will afford students the opportunity to go into more homes to work closely with family members who are not comfortable using technology. What many of us take for granted — depending on the Internet for work or health-care purposes — can be frightening for a parent or grandparent who has never used a computer or been on the Internet.

When students teach community members how to use computers or surf the Internet, they learn too. And this brings up a related topic: the benefits of hands-on learning. Classroom learning is one way — and perhaps the preferable way — but there are other forms of learning such as internships and on-the-job training. Working with local governments to deploy broadband to underserved individuals and households affords an opportunity for students to teach, learn and serve while providing local governments with the workforce they need to carry out such a daunting assignment.

In rural America as well, faculty and staff can play a key role in changing this paradigm. Engineering students from rural minority-serving institutions such as Tuskegee University in Alabama and Alcorn State University in Mississippi, as well as Hispanic- and Native American-serving institutions, can be offered the rare opportunity to participate in the design of new broadband networks. As an added value, many community and technical colleges are located in or near rural areas. This will make it easier for students to assist residents without having to travel long distances, and residents will be able to find a campus nearby.

I am sure that some will have questions about how governments will be able to hire and onboard students rapidly enough to get such a large initiative off the ground. One model that can be used or adapted for this purpose is the Federal Work-Study program for needy students, which encourages community-service work related to the recipient's course of study. There are approximately 3,400 institutions participating in the program, including most community-technical colleges and minority-serving higher ed institutions.

Finally, the type of partnership I am describing is not a novel idea. When I served as vice president for community development at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., in the mid- to late 2000s, I was the convener of a statewide broadband collaborative of technical colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, research universities and public libraries. Among other things, we came together to develop a joint proposal for broadband funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The South Carolina Technical College System, a member of the collaborative, was awarded a $3 million grant to provide digital literacy to underserved communities.

These types of collaborations are a smart way to maximize the strength of the public sector for the greater good of society. Getting broadband and digital literacy to every American — while taking advantage of the opportunities for college affordability and student learning — is a big step toward achieving that goal.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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