Can Colleges Reach Beyond Campus to Foster ‘Digital Equity’ in Communities?

The community of Orangeburg, South Carolina is home to two historically black colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, these institutions — Claflin University and South Carolina State University — are making the Internet available to their students and faculty. In fact, the latter institution installed a brand new, very nimble system earlier this year.

But just off campus in surrounding neighborhoods, high-speed Internet is hard to come by, and it’s typically expensive for people in a county where census data shows the median household income is $36,802 and the poverty rate is 19 percent goes to Jochai Ben-Avie, CEO of the non-profit organization Connect Humanity.

So his organization is working with the city of Orangeburg and Claflin University to extend the university’s broadband to surrounding communities at affordable rates. And with McKinsey research suggesting more than 80 percent of HBCUs are in “broadband deserts,” it’s a strategy that could work elsewhere in the country.

“This makes HBCUs and other institutions that serve minorities, and universities more broadly, really interesting and powerful partners in bridging the digital divide,” said Ben-Avie.

The Orangeburg approach is an example of the role that higher education could play in connecting millions of people from different backgrounds, income levels and parts of the country to a high-quality internet for fuller participation in the modern world – a concept that which some proponents have dubbed “digital justice.” That was the subject of a webinar hosted by the American Association of Colleges & Universities last month, in which Ben-Avie and other panelists called on college leaders to embrace their institutions’ identities as “anchors” in their neighborhoods and regions in order to conquer contribute to the digital divide.

Colleges have paid more attention to this idea since distance learning underscored students’ patchy access to computers and the internet during the pandemic era. Yet researchers, nonprofit and government leaders are urging colleges to think beyond their own students and how they can leverage their expertise and resources to make a difference off campus.

“Widespread broadband adoption contributes to greater prosperity for communities,” said Karen Mossberger, co-author of the book Choosing the Future: Technology and Opportunity in Communities. “Research shows that like education, it has spillover benefits to society.”

Beyond WiFi

Participation in digital equality efforts may be of particular interest to higher education institutions at this time as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act makes an inflow of billions of federal dollars available for relevant programs. A portion of this federal funding is earmarked for state-led efforts, while other sums are available for colleges to apply directly.

Colleges should consider how to tap into all of these funding streams and collaborate across education, research, outreach and human resource development, said Angela Thi Bennett, director of digital equity at the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

“It’s a great place for colleges to show themselves because you’re training the workforce,” she explained during the webinar. “They are that foundation for every profession, from our technical colleges to our community colleges to our HBCUs and our other minority-serving institutions.”

Colleges should think beyond just helping people access devices and Wi-Fi, panelists argued. There is also a great need to reduce technology costs, teach people digital literacy and technical skills, and create online tools and publishing materials that are relevant and helpful to people from different backgrounds and neighborhoods.

“Digital equity isn’t just about infrastructure, although that’s often where it starts,” Ben-Avie said. “There’s a huge gap between availability and adoption, and one of the biggest factors, if not the single largest factor, is affordability. Just having access doesn’t matter unless you can afford it.”

And colleges can do more than just share their internet. That could mean encouraging educators with the right research skills and interests to evaluate digital outreach and access programs, or working with students to host listening sessions with members of local communities to document their digital needs, Mossberger suggested.

For example, Arizona State University, where she serves as a professor and director of the Center on Technology, Data and Society, actively works with county officials to conduct relevant regional digital equity programs.

“Small municipalities have a hard time with this, although the will is there and the need is sometimes greatest there,” said Mossberger. “So I think colleges and universities can really play a role in helping these communities.”