IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Students’ Internet Access Before and During the Coronavirus Pandemic by Household Socioeconomic Status

The pandemic has focused attention on the resources needed for students to engage equitably in educational opportunities, particularly during remote learning. While access to computers and the internet were important to education prior to the pandemic—as tools for word processing, research, and communication after school hours, or even as the primary means of schooling—they became essential tools for students to remain engaged during the 2020–21 academic year. Reflecting this importance both before and during the pandemic, recent NCES blogs have highlighted data on virtual schools and geographic differences in digital access. This blog presents additional insight on these topics from the Condition of Education 2021. Specifically, it highlights patterns of inequity in access to educational technology by socioeconomic status, both before and during the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the Coronavirus Pandemic

According to the American Community Survey (ACS),1 the higher the level of parental educational attainment, the higher the percentage of 3- to 18-year-olds with home internet access in 2019. For instance, the percentage with home internet access was highest for those whose parents had attained a bachelor’s or higher degree (99 percent) and lowest for those whose parents had less than a high school credential (83 percent) (figure 1).

Similarly, the higher the level of family income, the higher the percentage of 3- to 18-year-olds with home internet access in 2019. Specifically, the percentage with home internet access was highest for those in families in the highest income quarter (99 percent) and lowest for those in families in the lowest income quarter (89 percent) (figure 1).2


Figure 1. Percentage of 3- to 18-year-olds with home internet access and home internet access only through a smartphone, by parental education and family income quarter: 2019

1 Includes those who completed high school through equivalency credentials, such as the GED.
NOTE: Includes only 3- to 18-year-olds living in households (respondents living in group quarters such as shelters, healthcare facilities, or correctional facilities were not asked about internet access). Includes 3- to 18-year-olds who had home internet access only through a smartphone but did not have any of the following types of computers: desktop or laptop, tablet or other portable wireless computer, or “some other type of computer.” Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, American Community Survey (ACS), 2019. See Digest of Education Statistics 2020, table 702.12.


While internet access is nearly universal in the United States (95 percent of all 3- to 18-year-olds had access in 2019), not all families access the internet the same way. Specifically, 88 percent had access through a computer,3 and 6 percent relied on a smartphone for their home internet access.4,5

In 2019, the higher the level of parental educational attainment, the lower the percentage of 3- to 18-year-olds who relied on a smartphone for their home internet access. Similarly, the higher the level of family income, the lower the percentage of 3- to 18-year-olds who relied on a smartphone for their home internet access. For instance, the percentage who relied on a smartphone for their home internet access was lowest for those in families in the highest income quarter (1 percent) and highest for those in families in the lowest income quarter (14 percent) (figure 1).

Taken together with the patterns for overall home internet access, these findings reveal that access only through a smartphone is generally more common for groups with lower rates of internet access overall. Importantly, although smartphones can be useful tools for staying connected, they offer more limited functionality for applications such as word processing or interactive learning platforms. In other words, overall levels of internet access mask further inequities in mode of access, which have implications for whether/how the internet can be used as an educational tool.

During the Coronavirus Pandemic

As students moved en masse to online learning during the pandemic, access to internet-connected devices became a requirement for students to participate effectively in their new learning environments. The pre-pandemic data described above suggest that not all students would have been in a position to take advantage of these remote classrooms, and that this would be true of a higher percentage of students whose parents had lower incomes or lower levels of educational attainment.  

Some schools and districts helped students meet these needs by providing computers or paying for home internet access. Data from the Household Pulse Survey (HPS) show that 59 percent of adults6 with children in the home enrolled in school7 reported that computers were provided by their school or district. This percentage was generally higher for those with lower 2019 household incomes, ranging from 68 percent for adults with household incomes below $25,000 to 50 percent for adults with household incomes over $150,000 (figure 2). A similar pattern was observed for internet access. Overall, 4 percent of adults said internet access was paid for by their students’ district or school, ranging from 8 percent for adults in the lowest household income range to about 1 percent for those in the highest household income range. These patterns are consistent with higher rates of assistance going to families with higher rates of expected need (as indicated in figure 1).


Figure 2. Among adults 18 years old and over who had children under 18 in the home enrolled in school, percentage reporting that computers and internet access were always or usually available and provided or paid for by schools or school districts, by income level: September 2 to 14, 2020

NOTE: Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data. Data in this figure are considered experimental and do not meet NCES standards for response rates. The survey question refers to enrollment at any time during the 2020–21 school year.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Household Pulse Survey, collection period of September 2 to 14, 2020. See Digest of Education Statistics 2020, tables 218.85 and 218.90.


Even with this assistance from schools and districts, however, socioeconomic inequalities in students’ access to computers and internet were not eliminated. In general, the percentage of adults who reported that these resources were always or usually available increased with household income. For example, in September 2020, the percentage of adults reporting that computers were always or usually available was highest for the two household income levels at or above $100,000 and lowest for the two household income levels below $50,000. Similarly, the percentage of adults reporting that internet access was always or usually available was higher for the three household income levels at or above $75,000 than for the three household income levels below $75,000.

Both before and during the pandemic, these data show that overall access to education technology in the United States is high. This access is bolstered by widespread access to mobile devices like smartphones and—at least during the 2020–21 academic year—by resources provided by students’ schools and districts, particularly for students from lower socioecnomic backgrounds. Nevertheless, inequalities persist. As the prevalence of technology in education grows, it will be important to continue to track equity not only in access but also in quality of access and frequency and competency of use.

Explore the following resources to learn more about students’ access to, use of, and competency with education technology.

General

Access

  • Condition of Education 2021

Use

Competency

 

By Véronique Irwin, NCES


[1] The American Community Survey (ACS) provides a large monthly sample of demographic, socioeconomic, and housing data comparable in content to the Long Forms of the Decennial Census. Aggregated over time, these data serve as a replacement for the Long Form of the Decennial Census. This section of the blog post uses data from ACS to describe the percentage of 3- to 18-year-olds with home internet access and the percentage with home internet access only through a smartphone in 2019.

[2] The highest quarter refers to the top 25 percent of all family incomes; the middle-high quarter refers to the 51st through the 75th percentile of all family incomes; the middle-low quarter refers to the 26th through the 50th percentile of all family incomes; and the lowest quarter refers to the bottom 25 percent of all family incomes.

[3] Refers to the percentage of 3- to 18-year-olds with home internet access through one or more of the following types of computers: desktop or laptop, tablet or other portable wireless computer, or “some other type of computer.” Includes homes having both smartphones and any of these types of computers.

[4] Refers to the percentage of 3- to 18-year-olds who had home internet access only through a smartphone but did not have any of the types of computers listed in endnote 3.

[5] Detail does not sum to totals because of rounding.

[6] The Household Pulse Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau and other agencies including NCES, gathers information from adults about household educational activities (as well as other topics). Because the data focus on adults, findings from HPS are not directly comparable to those from ACS mentioned above.

[7] According to HPS data, 52 million adults had children under age 18 in the home enrolled in school in September 2020. Overall, two-thirds (67 percent) of these adults reported that classes for their children had moved to a distance learning format using online resources.

Peer to Peer: Career Advice for Aspiring Education Researchers from Pathways to the Education Sciences Alumni

This blog is part of an ongoing series featuring IES training programs as well as our blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) within IES grant programs. For more information, see this DEIA update from Commissioners Elizabeth Albro (National Center for Education Research) and Joan McLaughlin (National Center for Special Education Research).

 

In 2015, IES launched the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program to broaden participation in education research. Pathways grants are awarded to minority serving institutions and their partners to provide up to year-long training fellowships to undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, and masters students. Each Pathways program has a specific education theme such as literacy, equity/social justice in education, student success, and education pipelines. Pathways fellows receive an introduction to scientific research methods and their program’s education theme, as well as meaningful opportunities to participate in education research, professional development, and mentoring. Currently, there are seven funded Pathways programs; IES recently launched the newest program focused on learning analytics and data science to the University of California, Irvine. Over 250 students have participated in Pathways, and many (39 at last count) have already started doctoral programs. In honor of HBCU week (September 7-10), Hispanic-Serving Institutions Week (September 13-19), and Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15- October 15), we reached out to six Pathways alumni who are in graduate school to ask them for advice for other students who wish to pursue graduate study related to education research. Here is what they shared with us.

 

Comfort Abode

RISE Training Program, University of Maryland, College Park/Bowie State University (HBCU)

Doctoral Student, Indiana University

My number one piece of advice for students who want to become education researchers would be to keep in mind the purpose of your research. If nobody understands it, it is not helpful. And in order for people to understand it, you yourself need to understand it. You cannot teach what you do not know. Especially considering that the research is in education, the goal should be to educate teachers, students, faculty, or whomever, about what is being studied and (hopefully) steps that can be taken towards improving that area. You have to keep your audience in mind and while it should not be “dumbed down,” you have to make sure that your point is getting across clearly. In order for that to happen, you have to know what you are talking about. Project RISE was especially helpful in the fact that there were a lot of mentors and people willing to help you understand the scope of the research as well as provide comments and feedback on areas to improve upon.

 

Jeremy Flood

RISE Training Program, North Carolina Central University (HBCU)/University of North Carolina Wilmington/Pennsylvania State University

Doctoral Student, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

My only advice would be to remember the mission of solving challenges in education. Within the body of education research, there are several ways one can accomplish this—whether it is by policy research, grounded theory, ethnography, or experiments, there are quite a diversity of tools available at a researcher’s disposal, so much so that it may seem overwhelming at first.  Do not stress if you find this true; you are not the first or the last to feel overwhelmed! Instead, use this as an opportunity to rededicate yourself to the mission and allow your dedication to choose a research path that is best for you. Whichever one, two, or three (or more) that you choose, make sure that the end goal seeks to improve the practice of education.

 

Jessala Grijalva

AWARDSS Training Program, University of Arizona/College of Applied Science and Technology at the University of Arizona

Doctoral Student, University of Notre Dame

I advise Pathways fellows to take the time to reflect and internalize the cultural competency components of the program. The Pathways program will not only prepare you with the hard and soft skills that you need to be a successful researcher, but also help you become an all-around culturally competent researcher. Sometimes, we assume that as students of color or students from diverse backgrounds that we are inherently culturally competent; yet, there is so much more to learn and to be aware of. From my experience as a participant in the Pathways program, I’ve learned of ways to extend cultural competency beyond research and into my interactions with other researchers, colleagues, mentors/mentees, and the broader community. To be an effective researcher, it’s not only important to conduct culturally component research, but to also work with people of all walks of life, and to be able to disseminate our research and findings to the public. Training in cultural competency is very rare and very valuable–and something we may not fully appreciate—so take advantage of this opportunity and make cultural competency an important priority in your conduct as a researcher.

 

Camille Lewis

PURPOSE Program, Florida State University/Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (HBCU)

Doctoral Student, Florida State University

There is an African proverb that states: “Knowledge is like a garden. If it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.” On the quest to become an education researcher, it is easy to get caught up in the hype of being “the expert.”  My #1 piece of advice to anyone who is interested in education research is to remain a student of life. Your journey to becoming an education researcher will be filled with many opportunities to learn, adapt, and understand the process of learning. Embrace these experiences; allow your researcher identity to be shaped and influenced by new discoveries and new interests. Continue to seek new information and allow your knowledge base to be cultivated. My experience as a public-school teacher, PURPOSE fellow, and doctoral student has shown me the importance and necessity of continually seeking advice, experiences, knowledge, and professional development related to learning and education. This pursuit of knowledge has informed and shaped not just my research, but my life outside academia as well. I never allow myself to become a “know it all.” This keeps me humble and allows me to continue to make improvements in every facet of my life.  

 

Christopher Terrazas, MA

Pathways Program, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA; HSI)

Doctoral Student, University of Texas at Austin

UTSA Pathways was instrumental in developing my identity as a researcher and graduate student. The other day, I described my experiences as being in a rocket, and Pathways provided the fuel to take off and get one step closer to my goals as a researcher. During my time, I made it a priority to be curious, always. I did this by attending all seminars offered and asking questions—even questions that I thought were not the right ones to ask at the time. You never know who may share a similar experience or perhaps a differing one to support you in your endeavors. Be bold and use your voice as an instrument to understand the world of research and graduate school during this exciting journey. It is crucial to get into this mindset because this will be your experience, perhaps your first. You will want to make sure that you are well prepared for this process as an aspiring researcher and scholar because this is your future. With that said, my number one piece of advice is to look inward to reflect on your own life experiences. Use these thoughts to feed your inner sense of self because you know more than anyone what you want for your future to be. 

 

Erica Zamora

Pathways Program, California State University, Sacramento

Doctoral Student, University of Arizona

The Pathway Fellows Program had a tremendous impact on my growth as a scholar and education researcher. My advice to students is to engage in research that not only reflect their scholarly interests but also reflect their values as community members and educators. My experience in the program gave me a deeper understanding of the importance of social justice and equity work in research. Education has the potential to transform communities and encourage growth and development while perpetuating various forms of oppression. Engaging in education research that centers the voices of and the issues that historically marginalized groups experience could lead to transformative outcomes at postsecondary institutions.

 


Written by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program and the new Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions, the two IES training programs for minority serving institutions, including Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions, American Indian Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISI), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Predominantly Black Institutions, Native American-Serving, Nontribal Institutions, and any other minority-serving institution as specified in request for applications.