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Can Colleges Reach Beyond Campus to Foster ‘Digital Equity’ in Communities?

Can Colleges Reach Beyond Campus to Foster ‘Digital Equity’ in Communities?


Rebecca Koenig
November 11, 2022
The community of Orangeburg, South Carolina, is home to two Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Unsurprisingly, these institutions—Claflin University and South Carolina State University—make the internet available to their students and faculty. In fact, earlier this year, the latter institution installed a brand-new, very zippy system.
But just off campus in the surrounding neighborhoods, high-speed internet is hard to come by, and it tends to be expensive for folks in a county where Census data show the median household income is $36,802, and the poverty rate is 19 percent, according to Jochai Ben-Avie, chief executive of the nonprofit Connect Humanity.
So his organization is working with the city of Orangeburg and Claflin University to extend the university’s broadband out into the surrounding community at affordable rates. And because research from McKinsey suggests that more than 80 percent of HBCUs are located in “broadband deserts,” it’s a strategy that may work elsewhere in the country, too.
“That makes HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, and universities more broadly, really interesting and powerful partners in bridging the digital divide,” Ben-Avie said.
The Orangeburg approach is an example of the role higher education could play in helping to get millions of people of all backgrounds, income levels and parts of the country connected to high-quality internet in order to more-fully participate in the modern world—a concept that some advocates have started to call “digital equity.” This was the topic of a webinar hosted last month by the American Association of Colleges & Universities, in which Ben-Avie and other panelists urged college leaders to embrace their institutions’ identities as “anchors” in their neighborhoods and regions in order to help conquer the digital divide.
Higher ed has been paying more attention to this idea since pandemic-era remote learning underscored students’ uneven access to computers and internet. Yet researchers and nonprofit and government leaders are calling on colleges to think bigger, beyond their own students, to consider how they can lend their expertise and resources to make a difference off campus, too.
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