Digital Access
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Digital access is the ability to fully participate in a digital society. It includes access to tools and technologies, such as internet and computers, that allow for full participation. A lack of digital access has adverse effects on cognitive development, educational attainment, and skill building. These variables are strongly linked to an individual’s economic success as well as their sense of power and autonomy.

Evidence of the Relationship between Predictor and Related Outcomes

  • We are increasingly reliant on digital access: 93 percent of American adults use the internet, but there is a digital divide for people with lower incomes, people of color, people residing in rural areas, people living on tribal land, and people with disabilities, who have less digital access then the rest of the country (Atske and Perrin 2021a, 2021b; Pew Research Center 2020; Vogels 2021a, 2021b; White House 2021; Wilson, Wallin, and Reiser 2003; Wodajo and Kimmel 2013).
  • Looking at students specifically, an estimated one-third of children residing in Black, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native households lack high-speed internet access (Ujifusa 2020; Alliance for Excellent Education 2020).
  • A survey funded by the ACT found that 1 percent of students had no internet-connected devices in their home, and 14 percent had only one device, often a smartphone, implying limited availability of devices and internet access for schoolwork. The students with access to only one device were more likely to be students of color, to be in lower-income families, and to have parents with lower educational attainment, than were students with two or more devices in their home (Moore, Vitale, and Stawinoga 2018).
  • The digital divide affects access to computers and internet in the home, at school, and at work, but it also limits teachers’ capacity to educate students using technology in progressive and multicultural ways (Gorski and Clark 2010).
  • The digital divide affects access to educational opportunities and employment. A 2009 study by the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Task Force found that 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires the use of the internet, resulting in a “homework gap” affecting students with limited digital access (FCC 2009; McLaughlin 2016).
  • The COVID-19 pandemic elevated the importance of digital access in education (Blagg et al. 2020; Gao and Hayes 2021). During the pandemic, students who need the internet to complete their assignments and had previously relied on computer labs at their local library or community center have had access further limited when required to stay at home.
  • Technology use in the home can increase confidence with technology. Preliminary research on the Apple and ConnectED program, an initiative to increase digital access for students by providing devices and internet access and training school staff, found increased frequency of personalized learning and critical thinking–focused education, particularly at the elementary school level. Teachers reported that the program led to small but statistically significant improvements in student engagement and critical thinking and collaboration skills (Singleton et al. 2018). Technology use in classrooms can improve skill building and education outcomes. A comprehensive meta-analysis of studies investigating the impacts of technology on mathematics and science learning in secondary school found that, when used in tandem with other learning tools, digital tools had positive effects on student learning outcomes and attitudes (Hillmayr et al. 2020).

How Investments Can Influence the Predictor at State or Local Levels

Communities around the country are already taking steps to expand digital access. For example, in Brooklyn, New York, the public library has an initiative called BklynConnect that provides free public Wi-Fi to residents within and outside of libraries through mesh networks, point-to-point networks, and portable hotspots (BPL 2017). In Hamilton County, Tennessee, policymakers developed the HCS EdConnect program to deliver free high-speed internet to public school students from low-income families through a partnership with EPB, a private internet service provider, while working around state laws that prohibit providing fully subsidized internet to residents. A report from Results for America discusses the initiative, challenges, and keys to success (Results for America 2022). When implementing programs to address digital access, it is important to recognize that access barriers include not only the internet itself but also devices and technological literacy.

It is important to not only increase access to devices and the internet but also to provide training for students, parents or guardians, and teachers, as well as to establish digital norms (Turner Lee 2020). Going even further, a Brookings Institute investigation of two ConnectED program awardee schools recommends understanding digital infrastructure in communities beyond schools and recommends connecting schools and communities to build holistic digital access systems (Turner Lee 2020). In addition to programs, organizations and local governments can increase digital access by ensuring that websites, applications, and other digital resources are smartphone compatible because of how many people rely on a smartphone alone for internet connectivity (Moore, Vitale, and Stawinoga, 2018).


The primary reference is marked with an asterisk.

Alliance for Excellent Education. 2020. “Homework Gap.” Washington, DC: All4Ed.

Atske, Sara, and Andrew Perrin. 2021a. “Americans with Disabilities Less Likely Than Those Without to Own Some Digital Devices.” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Atske, Sara, and Andrew Perrin. 2021b. “Home Broadband Adoption, Computer Ownership Vary by Race, Ethnicity in the U.S.” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Blagg, Kristin, Erica Blom, Megan Gallagher, and Macy Rainer. 2020. “Mapping Student Needs during COVID-19.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

BPL (Brooklyn Public Library). 2017. “Brownsville’s Digital Access Needs.” New York: BPL.

FCC (Federal Communications Commission). 2009. “Broadband Task Force Delivers Status Report on Feb 17 National Broadband Plan.” News release, September 29.

Gao, Niu, and Joseph Hayes. 2021. “The Digital Divide in Education.” San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California.

Gorski, Paul, and Christine Clark. 2010. “Multicultural Education and the Digital Divide: Focus on Race.” Multicultural Perspectives 3 (4): 15–25.

*Hillmayr, Delia, Lisa Ziernwald, Frank Reinhold, Sarah I. Hofer, and Kristina M. Reiss. 2020. “The Potential of Digital Tools to Enhance Mathematics and Science Learning in Secondary Schools: A Context-Specific Meta-analysis.” Computers & Education 153: 103897.

McLaughlin, Clare. 2016. “The Homework Gap: The ‘Cruelest Part of the Digital Divide’.” NEA Today, April 20.

Moore, Raeal, Dan Vitale, and Nycole Stawinoga. 2018. “The Digital Divide and Educational Equity: A Look at Students with Very Limited Access to Electronic Devices at Home.” Iowa City, IA: ACT Research & Center for Equity in Learning.

Pew Research Center. 2020. “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet.” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Singleton, Corinne, Linda Shear, Emi Iwatani, Natalie Nielsen, Ann House, Sara Vasquez, Tallie Wetzel, and Sarah Gerard. 2018. “The Apple and ConnectED Initiative: Baseline and Year 2 Findings from Principal, Teacher, and Student Surveys.” Menlo Park, CA: SRI Education.

Turner Lee, Nicol. 2020. “Bridging Digital Divides between Schools and Communities.” Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Ujifusa, Andrew. 2020. “1 in 3 American Indian, Black, and Latino Children Fall into Digital Divide, Study Says.EdWeek, July 22.

Vogels, Emily. 2021a. “Digital Divide Persists Even as Americans with Lower Incomes Make Gains in Tech Adoption.” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Vogels, Emily. 2021b. “Some Digital Divides Persist between Rural, Urban and Suburban America.” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

White House. 2021. “Fact Sheet: Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework Will Address Barriers Communities of Color Face to Economic Opportunity.” News release, June 29.

Wilson, Kenneth R., Jennifer S. Wallin, and Christa Reiser. 2003. “Social Stratification and the Digital Divide.” Social Science Computer Review 21 (2): 133–43.

Wodajo, Tadesse, and Jean Kimmel. 2013. “Explaining Changes in the Racial Digital Divide in the United States from 1997 to 2007.” Economics of Innovation and New Technology 22 (5): 483–518.

High-Quality Education

Related outcome: Age-appropriate cognitive development and educational attainment

Mobility dimension engaged: Economic success; power and autonomy

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