Study: ‘Digital divide’ affects school success

Access to a home computer increases the likelihood that children will graduate from high school, but blacks and Latinos are much less likely to have a computer at home than are whites, according to a report by a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). The report also found that the so-called “digital divide” is even more pronounced among children than adults.

If true, the report’s findings could have important implications for schools. For one thing, they would appear to support the value of computer take-home programs–such as one-to-one school laptop initiatives, or donating old machines to students’ families as they are replaced–as an effective strategy for school success.

But not everyone agrees with the report’s conclusions.

Robert Fairlie, associate professor of economics at UCSC, says his research shows the persistence of the digital divide and suggests it has a profound impact on educational outcomes–even when factors such as income and parental education are taken into consideration, Fairlie claims. His findings appeared in the October issue of the Economics of Education Review.

“The digital divide is large and persistent, and black and Latino children are particularly hard-hit,” said Fairlie. “The digital divide has important implications for educational and economic inequality in the United States. These findings should be a wake-up call for policy makers.”

Although many studies have explored the impact of computers in schools, and the federal government has made computer access in schools a priority, few studies have assessed the impact on youth of having a computer in the home, Fairlie said.

Among the key findings of his research:

  • Teenagers who have access to home computers are 6 to 8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than teens who lack access to a home computer, after reportedly controlling for individual, parental, and family characteristics.

  • Only 50.6 percent of blacks and 48.7 percent of Latinos have access to home computers, compared with 74.6 percent of whites.

  • Only 40.5 percent of blacks and 38.1 percent of Latinos have internet access at home, compared with 67.3 percent of whites.

  • Among children, slightly more than half of all black and Latino children have access to a home computer, and about 40 percent have internet access at home. By comparison, 85.5 percent of white children have home computer access, and 77.4 percent can use the internet at home.

    Racial disparities in access to computer technology–the so-called “digital divide”–are largely ignored in the latest U.S. Department of Commerce reports, called “A Nation Online,” Fairlie said.

    “We are clearly not all a nation online,'” he said. “Twenty million children in the United States, or 26 percent of children, have no computer access at home, and race is a key part of who’s online and who isn’t.”

    The most recent Commerce report on computer access, “A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age,” was published in 2004. While an appendix contains statistics showing computer and internet access broken out by racial subgroups, there is no discussion of these statistics or their disparities in the body of the report itself.

    In previous work, Fairlie said he has found that racial disparities in access to computers at home are highest among eight- to 25-year-olds.

    “These patterns are particularly troubling in light of the presumption that information technology is a new prerequisite for success in the labor market,” said Fairlie, a labor economist who specializes in minority entrepreneurship. His research is funded by the W. T. Grant Foundation and the Community Technology Foundation of California.

    During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Fairlie presented his report, “Are We Really a Nation Online? Ethnic and Racial Disparities in Access to Technology and Their Consequences,” to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. He also took part in a Congressional briefing on the digital divide.

    At least one researcher dismisses Fairlie’s conclusions as unfounded.

    Hugh W. Glenn, an online editor and research consultant who has taught in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University, among other schools, calls Fairlie’s report “neither a study nor research,” but merely a summary of data from previous publications.

    Fairlie’s conclusions “consisted only of opinions, perceptions, and unsupported assertions,” Glenn said. “The digital divide is principally the residue of socioeconomic factors. Richer parents buy more laptops for their children than poorer parents buy laptops for their offsprings.”

    The only way truly to measure the impact of home computer access on student achievement is to “select random groups of whites, blacks, and Latinos and provide members of all groups with laptops for home and school use throughout an academic year. Taking into account any initial disparities among groups, at year’s end, all participants could complete selected standardized tests, and a statistical test could determine any significant difference in achievement among the groups,” he said.

    Glenn concluded: “Closing the purported digital divide’ will not necessarily decrease the achievement gap between racial and ethnic groups. Computers and the World Wide Web [merely] deliver instruction–just as teachers and streamed media do.”


    University of California, Santa Cruz

    “Are We Really a Nation Online? Ethnic and Racial Disparities in Access to Technology and Their Consequences”

    U.S. Department of Commerce

    “A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age”

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