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Digital Divide Compounds U.S. Education Equity Problem, First-of-Its-Kind Survey Reveals

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning Offers Policy Solutions Focused on Increasing Access

IOWA CITY, Iowa, Sept. 6, 2018 — The “digital divide”—the gap between people who have sufficient knowledge of and access to technology and those who don’t—is compounding equity problems within US schools, according to new research from ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning. Underserved students with access to only one electronic device in their home—oftentimes only a cell phone—may face challenges that don’t exist for their peers in terms of completing schoolwork.

The research results, gathered in a survey of students who took the ACT test, show in stark detail how family income, racial/ethnic background, geography and other factors affect how many electronic devices a student has access to at home, which can impact the ability to work on assignments as well as to complete a college application.

The report, “The Digital Divide and Educational Equity,” looks at the 14 percent of ACT-tested students who said they had access to only one device at home. It was a follow-up to the report “High School Students’ Access to and Use of Technology at Home and in School,” which examines overall survey results and results for selected subgroups.

To date, most research about the digital divide has focused on the U.S. population generally, with little attention paid to determining whether the divide exists among students in the education system.

According to the report, among students who have access to only one device at home:

  • 85 percent were classified as underserved (low-income, first generation in college, or minority). 
  • American Indian/Alaskan, African American and Hispanic/Latino students had the least amount of access; white and Asian students had the highest. For example, 20 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Native students have access only to a smartphone, compared to only four percent of white students. 
Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of students whose self-reported annual family income was below $36,000 also reported only having access to one device—a gap of 19 percentage points compared to students from families with annual income above $100,000.

Of students whose parents have a college degree, the majority have access to more than one device at home; just seven percent of this group have access to only one device and three percent have access only to a smartphone—a disadvantage of 15 percentage points for first-generation college students. These data highlight the importance of ensuring that first-generation students have technological tools available to help them access higher education and attain a college degree.

According to the report, taking a deeper dive into these data is important because students with access to only one device may deal with challenges not faced by students with access to two or more devices. For example, these students may need to share that device with other family members in their household, including siblings who may also need the device for homework and other school-related activities, all of which limits the availability of the device for homework.

In addition, students reporting access to only one device at home were far more likely to reside in a rural area than in an urban or suburban area or a town.

“Too often the talk about the digital divide focuses on adults — this survey shows us what it’s doing to young people and how it could affect their learning,” said Jim Larimore, Chief Officer for the ACT Center for Equity in Learning. “When we question why we have education inequity, these insights about the digital divide should be kept in mind. We believe our policy recommendations provide a path forward by focusing on expanding device and internet access as well as ensuring students can access materials needed for school-related activities via mobile technology.”

The following are policy recommendations included in the brief.

Expand Device Access and Internet Among Those Who Lack Them

Programs that help to rectify device and internet access imbalances — such as one-to-one laptop initiatives, Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach or the private-sector Kajeet — are helping to improve educational opportunity for those in greatest need as they prepare for the 21st-century economy. The center recommends expansion of such efforts

Use Materials That Can Be Found with Mobile Devices and Don’t Burden Data Plans

Three out of every four students reported that they access the internet via a monthly cellular data plan and some differences emerged by racial/ethnic group

Given that the most commonly reported device at home was a smartphone and that the most commonly reported home internet connection was a monthly cellular data plan, teachers should do their best to ensure that students can easily find, view and use required electronic materials via their phones.

Fast-Track Computer Accessibility in School

Even students with access to only one device outside of school tend to report that their home internet is of higher quality, and is more reliable, than their school’s internet connection. The most commonly reported accessible device in school is a desktop computer. The center recommends that districts and states should prioritize and fast-track making such access available in the most technology-challenged schools.

Survey Details

The research was conducted by ACT’s Raeal Moore, Ph.D., Dan Vitale, and Nycole Stawinoga.

ACT conducted its survey of test takers in April 2017 (approximately 7,000 respondents). ACT asked students numerous questions about their access to and use of technology specifically for educational activities, both at home and in school, including the number and kinds of devices they have access to, the kind and reliability of the internet connections available to them and the frequency with which they used electronic devices for school-related activities.

About the ACT Center for Equity in Learning

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning supports research that focuses on closing gaps in equity and achievement. The enter works to produce actionable evidence to guide thought leadership and inform changes in policy and practice that will lead to improved learning and achievement.