The overall number of schools connected to the internet is steadily climbing, but low-income and minority students are still much less likely to attend schools with internet access than are white and more affluent students, according to a new report from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), a branch of the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

The study caught the attention of Vice President Gore, who told attendees at a recent technology conference, “We must bridge the ‘digital divide’ and provide a direct link to all classrooms so low-income and rural students don’t get left behind.” That rhetoric now is being implemented in policy decisions by the agency in charge of the eRate program, which was created to underwrite some of the costs of connecting schools and libraries to the internet.

NCES sent its survey to 1,000 U.S. public schools and received responses from more than 90 percent. NCES then sorted the responses according to each school’s size, location, and socioeconomic and racial demographics.

The NCES study reveals that from 1994 to 1997, the percentage of schools connected to the internet has more than doubled. In 1994, when the survey first began, 35 percent of schools had internet access; by 1997, 78 percent of schools had access.

Moreover, the percentage of classrooms wired to the internet for instructional purposes has increased by nine times in the same span, from 3 percent in 1994 to 27 percent in 1997.

Among schools with minority enrollments of 6 percent or less, 84 percent have access to the internet. In schools where the minority enrollment is 50 percent or more, only 63 percent of those schools have access ‹ a 21 point difference.

Furthermore, among schools where less than 11 percent of their students are eligible for reduced-price lunches, 88 percent report internet access. Among schools where 71 percent or more of the students are eligible for reduced-price lunches, only 63 percent of the schools have internet access ‹ a discrepancy of 25 percentage points.

PCs required

The question of internet access in schools becomes all the more significant in light of another recent study by market research firm Computer Intelligence (CI). CI reports that students from affluent families are more than three times as likely to own a computer at home than their less-affluent peers. The CI study shows that 80 percent of households with incomes of $100,000 or more own a PC, compared to only 25 percent of homes with incomes of $30,000 or less.

According to Linda Roberts, ED’s director of educational technology, the best way to compensate for these differences is to ensure that those students who are least likely to have access to a PC and the internet at home receive that access at school.

“We can’t let the divide between the haves and the have-nots grow even larger,” Roberts said.

Just how these students might be left behind has taken a new turn recently. For years, educators have agreed that computer skills would serve students well in the job market. Now, these skills are becoming essential to succeed in college.

The University of Florida (UF) has joined a growing list of four-year colleges that will require students to own or use computers as part of their degree programs. The UF policy states, “Competency in the basic use of a computer is a requirement for graduation. Class assignments may require use of a computer, academic advising and registration can be done by computer, and official university correspondence is often sent via eMail.”

Other colleges that have established similar requirements include the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Georgia Tech.

Mark Hale, director of UF’s Center for Instructional and Research Computing Activities (CIRCA), acknowledged that students who come from high schools without access to computer-based instruction or the internet might not be as prepared for UF’s computer requirement as students who have had such access.

“But making computers a requirement will actually help students in the long run,” Hale said. “We’re ensuring that the cost of a computer will now be considered in a student’s financial aid package.”

Linwood Futrelle, director of distributed support for UNC’s Academic Technology and Networks department, agreed that college computer requirements ultimately will benefit students. “They’re already at a disadvantage, whether there’s a computer requirement or not,” Futrelle said of low-income freshman. “This will help level the playing field.”

Futrelle said the university is developing training programs to help students who have not had access to computers or the internet in their elementary or secondary studies. Still, Futrelle said, “It’s critical that every child have access at the K-12 level also.”

Leveling the K-12 playing field

The eRate was specifically created so low-income schools and districts could afford networking and internet access. But as of March 10, schools have filed more than 30,000 eRate applications with the Schools and Libraries Corporation (SLC). This raises questions about what would happen if eRate requests exceed available funds.

Speaking at the Florida Education Technology Conference on Mar. 7, SLC chief Ira Fishman said the schools most in need would receive top priority for eRate discounts.

Jodie Buenning, SLC’s deputy director of outreach and communications, confirmed that should the demand exceed the program’s funding, those schools and districts most in need‹as measured by the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches‹would receive discounts before schools and districts with less perceived need.

If such a scenario were to occur, Buenning couldn’t say whether the SLC would award full discounts on all requested services to schools who make the cut, or cut back on the amount of each discount to spread the discounts around to a larger number of schools. “When we close the application window, we’ll have a better sense of what the demands of the program will warrant,” she said.

Of course, for the eRate to have any success in bridging the digital divide, low-income and minority districts must take advantage of the program. Buenning said the SLC has made a significant effort to raise awareness about the eRate among low-income and rural districts. SLC’s outreach staff has conducted over 100 workshops with schools in rural states such as Mississippi and Montana and districts with high concentrations of low income students, such as New York City’s, she said.

In addition, the SLC has worked closely with minority groups, such as the National Alliance of Black School Educators, to ensure these groups were adequately informed and prepared to apply for their share of the discounts.

How well the SLC’s outreach efforts have succeeded remains unclear. It’s too early to tell how many of the eRate applicants so far are low-income or minority schools, Buenning said.