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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Lack of High-Speed Internet and Device Access
Race & Ethnicity
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)
In this analysis, a computer refers to a laptop, desktop, or tablet. Students who rely exclusively on smartphones for completing homework must contend with smaller screens on slower devices that have fewer features. Smartphone applications lack the full functionality of software that is available on computers. Therefore it may be difficult, if not impossible, for students to complete assignments that require detailed writing, editing, calculations, and graphics. Additionally, these students may need to monitor data caps or recharge prepaid phone plans to maintain their internet access.(4) Consequently, these students are less likely to complete and submit assignments online outside of school or engage in other online activities such as conducting research, video chatting with peers about school work, or looking up classroom information.(5)
Nationally, only about 23 percent of all households with children do not have high-speed home internet service and about 10 percent do not have a computer. However, rates vary widely by race. Thirty-four percent of American Indian/Alaska Native families and about 31 percent each of Black and Latino families lack access to high-speed home internet compared to only 21 percent of White families.
Furthermore, lack of high-speed home internet access disproportionately affects children of color. For example, Latino households make up 20.9 percent of all households with children but represent 28.7 percent of households without high-speed home internet access. This totals 2.4 million Latino families and 5.1 million Latino children. Similarly, Black households make up 14.4 percent of all households with children but represent 19.5 percent of households without high-speed home internet access. This totals 1.6 million Black families and 3.3 million Black children.
Likewise, home access to computers and other devices is limited for students of color. About 17 percent each of Black and Latino families and nearly 16 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native families do not have a computer at home, compared to only 8 percent of White families.
Lack of Internet and Device Access by Race and Ethnicity
|White||Asian||Black||Latino||American Indian/Alaska Native|
|Percentage of Households Without High-Speed Home Internet||20.9%||12.3%||30.6%||31.2%||34.2%|
|Percentage of Households Without a Computer||7.9%||3.5%||17.2%||17.0%||15.8%|
Note: “Household” refers to households with one or more children age 17 years or younger.
Four in ten families that earn less than $25,000 annually do not have high-speed home internet access and three in ten do not have a computer. Similarly, among households that earn between $25,000 and $50,000 annually, one-third lack high-speed home internet service and nearly one-fifth do not have a computer.
Lack of Internet and Device Access by Household Income
|All Households||Annual Income Below $25,000||Annual Income Between $25,000 and $50,000||Annual Income Between $50,000 and $75,000||Annual Income Between $75,000 and $150,000||Annual Income Above $150,000|
|Percentage of Households Without High-Speed Internet||22.7%||44.5%||32.2%||23.6%||15.1%||8.4%|
|Percentage of Households Without a Computer||9.8%||28.7%||15.9%||8.6%||3.5%||1.7%|
Note: “Household” refers to households with one or more children age 17 years or younger.
That is nearly two out of every five families living in rural locations. The greatest disparities exist in rural southern and southwestern states, with Mississippi having the highest percentage of families who lack high-speed home internet service—nearly 42 percent.
Lack of Internet and Device Access by Location
|Nonmetropolitan “Rural” Locations||Metropolitan Locations|
|Percentage of Households Without High-Speed Internet||36.2%||20.9%|
|Percentage of Households Without a Computer||14.2%||9.3%|
Notes: “Household” refers to households with one or more children age 17 years or younger. Following the U.S. Census Bureau’s practice, this table 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 or “rural.”
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.
|Technology||Households/Children Without Access||Cost per Household/Child to Provide Access||Total Cost|
|High-Speed Home Internet||8,365,183 households||$600 annually||$5,019,109,800|
|Computer||7,273,556 children||$250 one-time cost||$1,818,389,000|
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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The data used for the analysis presented in “Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap” comes from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS). This survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, contacts 3.5 million households per year. Households receive notices through the mail that they have been selected for the survey, and they can respond through the mail, using the internet, or by telephone. If contacted households do not respond, ACS follows up with phone calls to ask that the survey be completed. About 90 percent of contacted households complete the ACS.
The large sample size of ACS allows analysis of fairly disaggregated geographic units. Since the ACS is an ongoing survey, the Census Bureau aggregates the data in different ways. For analysis of census tracts, which generally have populations of about 4,000 people (although census tracts can be geographically large in rural areas), ACS aggregates data over five years. That means that about 17.5 million households are available for analysis. For larger geographic areas such as states, the “1-year ACS estimates” are appropriate, since that survey can be used to analyze places with populations of 65,000 or more.
To calculate the numbers of children without digital tools, this analysis used ACS data on the number of related children in the household. That figure varies depending on income, race, and state. The calculations in the state-by-state tables account for these variations. For example, households in Texas, on average, have more children than those in Vermont while low-income households generally have more children than upper-income ones. In other words, a separate figure for the average number of children in households was calculated for each state and, within each state, across income and race/ethnicity categories. The ACS downloadable PUMS data does not capture all children in the United States, but the ACS provides data on the total number of children in the country. The number of children in the ACS PUMS data differs from the total reported on the Census website by about 7 percent. The analysis allocated this difference proportionately across states and subcategories.
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).
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.