Urban Wire Who Gets to Go to College When All College Is Online?
Shayne Spaulding, Adaeze Okoli
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As colleges across the country move toward distance education to close out the school year, looming questions about equitable access for students remain.

Though distance education has been expanding recently, the coronavirus pandemic brought about a sudden turn toward online education at almost all colleges, raising questions about access and supports. Of particular concern are low-income students, older students, Black and Hispanic/Latinx students, and students from rural areas, all of whom face particular barriers to access and success.

At the most basic level, being able to take an online course requires that students have access to broadband internet. On average, students from Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Native American households are less likely to have access to this resource.


Share of households with broadband access by race/ethnicity chart

It’s a similar trend for students in low-income households. Thirty-seven percent of families earning less than $20,000 annually lack a broadband internet subscription at home, compared with 10 percent of families earning more than $75,000 annually.


To take advantage of online education, students also need digital skills to be able to navigate online courses and programs. Recent research examined the issue of digital skills as a foundation for educational and labor market success. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, about 16 percent of Americans ages 16 to 65 lack very basic digital skills, meaning they cannot turn on a computer or report never having used a computer. And more than half have some basic digital skills but lack a level of digital literacy, which means they’re not proficient enough to navigate technology applications or use specific tools like “find” in Microsoft Word or “sort” in an Excel spreadsheet.

Digital skill levels vary widely across groups. On average, those who have less education, are older, or are Black or Hispanic/Latinx have lower digital skill levels. Though some may assume college populations wouldn’t lack digital skills, older students represent a significant portion of undergraduate students. In 2017, 42 percent of students in public four-year programs were 25 or older, and about 39 percent of students in public two-year programs were in that age group. And although white students still make up the largest group of college students (8.9 million of the 16.8 million undergraduate students enrolled for fall 2017), about 3.3 million were Hispanic/Latinx and 2.2 million were Black.  

Another key issue is that many students already struggle to be successful in higher education. Approximately 60 percent of students complete four-year programs within six years and about 30 percent complete two-year programs within three years. Vulnerable groups, who might face greater barriers to accessing the internet and are more likely to lack digital skills, face even greater challenges finishing degree programs. In 2017, the graduation rate for Black students enrolled in four-year programs was 40 percent, and for those in two-year programs, the graduation rate was 23 percent.

There is evidence that supports can be important for ensuring success in brick and mortar programs, but what happens when education moves entirely online? We recently explored the ways community colleges across the country are providing supports to help their online learners be successful. As colleges move toward expanded online education, they can look to these examples of supports provided to help students, especially those most at risk of dropping out.


To support equitable access and success for students, policymakers could do the following:

  • in the immediate term, support efforts to expand broadband internet access so students can take online courses provide resources to colleges to purchase computers for home use
  • in the future, take steps to support free broadband access as a public utility, continue to fund broader access to computers, and provide resources to support internet access in public venues, such as libraries

The private sector could do the following:

  • offer free broadband internet access for students during the pandemic and consider strategies for expanded access in the future (e.g., Charter Communications is currently offering 60 days of free broadband and Wi-Fi access to new K–12 and college student households)
  • provide access to laptops and tablets for home use, either directly or in coordination with colleges

Colleges and universities could do the following:

Our report on digital skills highlights the importance of online programs that address digital skill needs to ensure that participants can successfully navigate online courses. Colleges could offer this directly to students or leverage widely available resources, such as Google for Education’s free Applied Digital Skills curriculum, to help students develop these skills.

Colleges could partner with external organizations to ramp up supports during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, InsideTrack is an organization that provides training and consulting to colleges so advising staff can effectively coach students and manages a platform, uCoach, that colleges can use to support their efforts.

Even when the immediate measures to promote social distancing are lifted and students are able to return to school, if past recessions are any indication, there will likely be increased enrollment in education from the economic downturn. The steps we take now to respond to the current crisis will position educators to better support students in the future.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Education
Tags COVID-19 Beyond high school: education and training Higher education Racial equity in education Technology and future of learning and training
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center Center on Education Data and Policy