With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting how students obtain their education and forcing colleges and universities in California and beyond to shift to a distance learning model, the Michelson 20MM Foundation funded a rapid response Michelson Spark Grant round in the spring. One goal of the round was to address how the digital divide is affecting higher education students during this time.

Past studies have illustrated the digital divide issue is alive and well in California with only 74% of homes having a broadband subscription. The number shrinks to between 54% and 67% when looking at low-income, less educated, rural, African American, and Latinx households. The digital divide has always been a barrier to educational justice, but in the wake of the pandemic, the divide has left countless students behind, especially low-income students and students of color.

The Education Trust–West (ETW), the latest Michelson Spark Grant recipient, has embarked on an effort to highlight the digital divide throughout higher education so that colleges and universities can accelerate solutions and support for students and faculty. ETW is a nonprofit that advocates for educational justice and the high academic achievement of all California students, particularly students of color and those living in poverty. In its latest initiative, ETW polled California higher education students to find out what resources and support they’re receiving from their institutions, and uncover their experiences after switching to distance learning and grading.

The ETW survey reveals that a majority (75%) of college/university students in California say that their school handled the coronavirus well. But less than half say that their schools are providing the essential resources they need including online textbooks, virtual office hours, financial aid, mental health services, and internet access. While nearly all (91%) respondents feel that online no-cost textbooks would be helpful in completing their studies, only 20% report that their institution is providing these resources. 

Notably, the survey finds that 85% of CA students are now enrolled in online courses, but 10% of students lack devices to participate in online classes while 12% have little to no internet access. When it comes to the future, 20% of CA students don’t believe they’ll return to school this fall and a whopping 75% are worried about whether they will ever graduate. 

It’s clear that providing students with the proper resources and services is vital for keeping students on track to obtain their degree. The survey recommends that institutions can best address students’ academic needs by providing student support services (mental health, tutoring, advising, etc.). Schools should also measure and address the digital divide on their campus, then develop a robust distance learning plan tailored to their student body. It’s also important to ensure information is clearly communicated across administration, faculty, staff & students so that everyone can meaningfully participate in the education process even at a distance. 

ETW is also creating a digital map that illustrates the higher education system’s response, including gaps in digital access and implementation of distance learning. Equipped with this useful information, school administrators and legislators will be able to develop solutions that ensure all California college students are equipped to succeed in their higher education careers.

Michelson 20MM has a long history supporting organizations that help students get into college and stay enrolled until graduation. We are proud to work with ETW on a second Michelson Spark Grant. We previously supported the nonprofit with development of the California Digital Financial Aid Awareness Toolkit aimed at increasing rates of completed financial aid applications, specifically for low-income students and students of color. We are excited to partner again with ETW to ensure that all students affected by the digital divide are supported during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

The Michelson 20MM Foundation and its initiatives are made possible by the generous support of Gary K. Michelson, M.D. and his wife, Alya Michelson. We are currently seeking proposals for a funding round focused on our Smart Justice initiative. To learn more please visit our webpage or sign up for notifications using the form below.