Pierce College theater student Sonny Lira was in the middle of rehearsing a script when his phone overheated and shut off, abruptly cutting off his performance.

This wasn’t the first time technical difficulties interrupted Lira’s community college class. Since Wi-Fi wasn’t good enough at home, Lira often practiced his lines over Zoom in his car, situated in the middle of a Starbucks parking lot. The constant disruptions frustrated his director, who discussed finding a laptop for him.

“I’d have to run home to get an ice pack and recharge (my phone) if I wanted to attend class,” Lira said.

More than 100,000 low-income college students in California, like Lira, lack access to the technology they need in order to participate in online classes, according to a new report from the non-profit education equity organization The Education Trust–West. It is among the first comprehensive looks at how the coronavirus pandemic intersects with the digital divide at California colleges.

Across hundreds of California colleges, about 102,000 students from lower income households and 145,000 students of color lack access to the internet, the report projects. (There is some overlap between the two groups.) When it comes to access to a laptop or tablet, the report finds more than 109,000 low-income students and nearly 134,000 students of color may be left out.

The digital divide is not a new problem in California: As of 2019, only about half of low-income Californians had broadband internet at home, compared with three-quarters of households overall, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-partisan think tank. But uneven access to technology poses a major barrier to students’ learning as the coronavirus remains uncontained and colleges begin planning for a spring semester online, said report author Abby Ridley-Kerr, a research and data analyst at The Education Trust–West. 

“I think what’s surprising to me is no campus is untouched by this,” said Ridley-Kerr. “The assumption might be (that) at the college level, students are equipped to do this and handle it. But really, we see that across the board, there’s just huge numbers of students affected by the digital divide.”

The report is based on a statewide poll The Education Trust–West conducted earlier this year, which found that 15% of students from lower income households and 12% students of color do not have access to devices that enable them to learn remotely. Fourteen percent of lower income students and 15% of students of color reported a lack of internet access at home.

Researchers cross-referenced the poll results with federal enrollment data to come up with a rough estimate of the digital divide on each campus. They then assigned campuses a digital equity score ranging from one to five. An interactive map shows each campus’s ranking, with many of the blue dots representing campuses with the biggest projected divides clustered in the state’s inland areas.

Within the 23-campus CSU system, Humboldt State and CSU Dominguez Hills were likely to have the largest gaps in technology access, the report found, with an estimated 666 low-income students at the 7,000-student Humboldt State campus missing a laptop or tablet

“Humboldt State is in a rural location where internet access can sometimes be limited,” said the university’s chief information officer, Bethany Rizzardi. “So for students who live locally, internet service may not be as available or reliable as the service in more urban areas.”

Rizzardi said the campus had been able to provide laptops to every student who requested one, but that the high demand for computers nationally made them difficult to obtain. Researchers in the university’s sociology department are partnering on a national study looking at how the digital divide affects rural students, she said.

While concern about the digital divide has grown among higher education leaders due to the pandemic, reliable data has been hard to come by. California State University spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp, for example, said the university had been “working to address” technology access, distributing 21,000 laptops and tablets along with 10,000 WiFi hotspots since March, and reopening libraries on some campuses. But he said the university did not have any data on how many students actually lacked internet access or devices systemwide.

Community colleges have the greatest need when it comes to technology access, the Education Trust–West team found.

The researchers ranked the 3,000-student Barstow Community College a 4.4 out of 5, indicating the digital divide was likely severe, with 240 low-income students and 216 students of color estimated to lack access to devices. 

Most residents in the small desert town of Barstow live on fixed incomes, said the college’s director of public affairs, Amanda Simpson. 

“It leaves very little if any money for luxury items such as laptops or home computers, let alone internet and Wi-Fi. Also, these same residents don’t have the means for a vehicle to get to a location to access free internet,” she said. Simpson said the college was working with community organizations to provide wireless access points for students experiencing difficulties.

The findings about community colleges mirror an internal survey by the California Community Colleges of 50,000 students, in which almost 20% reported unreliable or nonexistent internet service. Black and Latino students were less likely to have functional laptops or reliable internet compared to their peers of other ethnic groups.

“The Ed Trust report raises many of the same issues that we found in our survey and are working to respond to,” Paul Feist, CCC vice chancellor for communications and marketing, wrote in an email. 

A $120 million state grant to the system for coronavirus response helped close the digital divide among students who otherwise would be left behind during the transition to online learning, Feist said, but he added that more government support was needed. 

“We need to keep up the pressure in Washington and urge Congress and the president to approve a meaningful stimulus package that includes resources to help students get the supports they need to succeed during this pandemic,” Feist said. 

Three California congressional representatives and colleagues have introduced the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, which would provide $1 billion to colleges and universities to cover routers, modems, hotspots, devices and broadband for students. A new federal stimulus package has been stalled since May, with President Trump tweeting Tuesday that he would halt negotiations until after the November election.  

Individual community colleges have offered their students assistance with technology, but have faced challenges. Sometimes students are not aware such help is available, and shipments of equipment can be delayed. 

The Los Angeles Community College District purchased a record number of laptops in August to meet students’ technology needs, intending to distribute 40,000 devices throughout the Spring and Fall semesters. But Lira, the Pierce College student, was still unable to receive a laptop for Fall 2020 due to a delay in laptop shipments to the school. After seeing him struggling, a professor ended up lending him his personal laptop, Lira said.

Ridley-Kerr acknowledged that the Education Trust–West report has its limits; for example, it doesn’t capture all the changes in availability of technology that have taken place on campuses since the pandemic began. But she said she hopes the study can start a conversation among campus leaders and state officials about how to ensure that every college student has an opportunity to get connected. A survey attached to the study invites administrators to share more information on their campus’s needs.

“The ultimate goal is that we’re collecting more data and pushing leaders to report accurate data on digital equity needs at their campus, so that we can start to really close and bridge the divide for students,” she said.

Domingo and Karim are fellows with the CalMatters College Journalism Network; West is its training coordinator. College Journalism Network editor Felicia Mello contributed reporting. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Charlotte West is a reporting coach and training coordinator with CalMatters' College Journalism Network. Her work on education, justice and politics has appeared in national publications such as The Hechinger...