Inequality in Online Services Can Worsen the Educational Achievement Gap

Access to the internet is increasing rapidly, and many organizations, whether they are non-profit, for-profit or governmental, have transitioned to the web, and many are only operating online. While there are clear benefits to this, it may result in creating an unrecognized educational opportunity gap for the large number of families that lack either access to the web or sufficient tools to use online services effectively.

According to one recent survey, 94% of families have access to internet. But a closer look at the data shows that only 48% of families below the poverty level have access to high-speed internet at home. And, for immigrant Hispanic families, like many of those in our service population, this percentage drops to 35%!

Even when they do have internet access, it may be limited due to the number family members who share the same computer, the inability to afford the high monthly fees, technical problems with hardware and software they may not be able to fix, slow and outdated computers, and, in some case, the inability to read or understand English well, if at all.

The lack of reliable home-based internet access puts school-age children at a great educational disadvantage. Among children who have access to internet through home computers, 81% use it to do homework, 40% use it to communicate with teachers, and 46% to collaborate with other students on school projects. Also, these children are more likely to go look up information online about things they are interested in. All this contributes to the performance gap we witness during middle and high school, which translates into troubling attainment gaps at the college level.

Reliable access to internet is necessary to navigate the college application maze, to compete for a spot at college, to compare and choose among colleges' acceptance and financial aid offers, to apply for federal and other financial aid, to research scholarships, to look for internship opportunities, and eventually to find a job, there is no doubt that the more internet access one has, the more likely s/he will succeed.

Working closely with modest-income families, we have observed that even when internet is available, parents and children might not be equipped with the necessary know-how to harvest its potential. In recent focus-groups with the families we serve, parents said that learning how to search on the internet was absolutely necessary in their college application process. One student explained: "I knew that you could get scholarships and whatnot, but I didn't really know how to get them."

Families expressed the importance of learning how to go online to look for more information, learn about colleges' requirements, and scholarship opportunities as well as filling out the financial aid and application forms.

Another student described the change in his mother's behavior following an information session we held: "After she learned that she can do things online, she would say, 'Go online and go search on. Go sign up' ... So she would be more persistent in having me sign up and look for scholarships and [other] opportunities." In fact, without these skills and without online access, it is very difficult for any students to compete in the online-based race to a college education.

What's most motivating is that once introduced to how the digital world works, students and their families are quick to take advantage of the services offered online. For instance, one student explained: "[my] parents don't want to see me in debt later on and so I've been able to use different websites and use different calculators to see how much parents are expected to pay like that. So they're trying to balance it out." Free online resources made available, such as the government's College Score card (https://collegescorecard.ed.gov) and the College Board's Net price Calculator (http://netpricecalculator.collegeboard.org), as well as similar tools provided by most colleges are not luxuries in the college decision process; they are essential.

There is no way to slow the transition to providing online-only services, but schools and colleges need to be conscious of the fact that a significant and growing segment of the children and their families must be able to take advantage of them. Without properly equipping those without digital access and literacy, we actually risk increasing the inequality and widening the educational achievement gap.