Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap

Sutton Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia. (photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

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16.9 million children remain logged out because they don't have internet at home

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a near-total shutdown of the U.S. school system, forcing more than 55 million students to transition to home-based remote learning practically overnight. In most cases, that meant logging in to online classes and accessing lessons and assignments through a home internet connection.

Sadly, that was not an option for children in one out of three Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native households. Nationwide, across all racial and ethnic groups, 16.9 million children remain logged out from instruction because their families lack the home internet access necessary to support online learning, a phenomenon known as the “homework gap.”

According to an analysis of data from the 2018 American Community Survey conducted for the Alliance for Excellent Education, National Urban League, UnidosUS, and the National Indian Education Association, millions of households with children under the age of 18 years lack two essential elements for online learning: (1) high-speed home internet service and (2) a computer.

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California Homework Gap

This digital divide—also described as the “homework gap”—spans statewide, but it disproportionately impacts children of color and those living in rural areas and in low-income families.

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Lack of High-Speed Internet and Device Access 

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Five Facts About High-Speed Home Internet Access for Students

This includes 16.9 million children. For this analysis, “high-speed home internet” refers to a wireline broadband internet subscription—high-speed internet service provided via cable, fiber, or digital subscriber line (DSL). While many households have wireless broadband internet access through smartphones, these services generally are insufficient for educational purposes since they do not have the same capacity, reliability, or speeds available through wireline services(1). A study from Michigan State University finds that students who do not have home internet access or who rely solely on a mobile plan for their internet access spend more time on their homework, have lower grade point averages, and have weaker digital skills, even after controlling for socioeconomic factors that potentially influence academic performance(2). In fact, “[t]he gap in digital skills between students with no home access or cell phone only and those with fast or slow home Internet access is equivalent to the gap in digital skills between 8th and 11th grade students,” according to the study.(3)

The Cost to Close the Homework Gap

Most of the burden for equipping students with devices and internet access for ongoing online learning will fall to schools, districts, and states. But they cannot resolve the existing disparities alone. Bringing high-speed home internet access to all 8.4 million households that currently are offline will require Congress to approve additional funding to support students’ learning needs.

Congress should appropriate the $6.8 billion necessary to cover immediate costs related to high-speed home internet access and devices in any upcoming funding packages passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, additional substantial resources will be necessary to build out the infrastructure in rural areas where connectivity is not currently available. This is critical to do in the long term to ensure students in isolated regions have full access to a high-quality education. However, these costs fall outside the scope of the immediate response to COVID-19 necessary for students to participate in online learning during the 2020–2021 school year.

TechnologyHouseholds/Children Without AccessCost per Household/Child to Provide AccessTotal Cost
High-Speed Home Internet8,365,183 households$600 annually$5,019,109,800
Computer7,273,556 children$250 one-time cost$1,818,389,000
Total$6,837,498,800

Notes: This chart calculates the costs of high-speed home internet service based on the number of households without access since a single internet subscription serves multiple family members. By contrast, this chart calculates computer costs based on the number of children without a device since each child needs an individual computer to participate in online learning.

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ClickToTweet: Just Released by @All4Ed, @WeAreUnidosUS, @NatUrbanLeague, @WereNIEA—An analysis finds that 16.9 million children age 17 or younger in 8.4 million households do not have high-speed home internet #HomeworkGap all4ed.org/homeworkgap

ClickToTweet:16.9 million children are “logged” out because their families lack the home internet access necessary to support online learning. Now is the time to close the #HomeworkGap all4ed.org/homeworkgap

ClickToTweet: 1 in 3 Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native households do not have high-speed home internet and are more likely than White families to be disconnected from online learning. Close the #HomeworkGap all4ed.org/homeworkgap

ENDNOTES

1 John B. Horrigan, senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, conducted the data analysis referenced in this document. To read the full methodology for this analysis, visit all4ed.org/homeworkgap.

2 Columbia Telecommunications Corporation, Mobile Broadband Service Is Not an Adequate Substitute for Wireline (Kensington, MD: Author, 2017).

3 K. Hampton et al., Broadband and Student Performance Gaps (East Lansing, MI: James H. and Mary B. Quello Center, Michigan State University, 2020).

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Following the U.S. Census Bureau’s practice, this analysis defines metropolitan areas as urbanized areas of 50,000 or more people and urban clusters of at least 2,500 people but less than 50,000. Remaining areas are nonmetropolitan. The American Community Survey does not use the term “rural” in characterizing geographies.