Tucked into a nearly 2,700-page bipartisan infrastructure package currently under consideration by the Senate is a provision that would ensure low-income college students can continue to have their broadband needs met, even when campuses reopen and the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end.
A provision in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would create the "Affordable Connectivity Program," an extension of the temporary "Emergency Broadband Benefit" passed by Congress last December to provide discounted broadband service to eligible low-income households, including Pell Grant recipients. The new program retains the eligibility of Pell recipients for monthly $30 subsidies toward purchasing high-speed internet -- down from $50 in the Emergency Broadband Benefit -- and makes the program permanent.
More than 825 broadband providers across the country participated in the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which was the nation's largest-ever broadband affordability program but is set to expire after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the pandemic. Considerably more funding has been appropriated for the Affordable Connectivity Program -- $14.2 billion, up from $3.2 billion for the emergency program. Those who participate in federal assistance programs, are approved to receive benefits from free and reduced lunch programs or experienced a substantial loss of income due to the pandemic are also eligible for the subsidy, in addition to Pell recipients.
"The infrastructure bill would be a really big win for Pell students if it were to be enacted as it is right now," said Emily Bouck West, deputy executive director at Higher Learning Advocates, which has been lobbying for broadband affordability programs for students. "It will mean greater broadband access and greater success for students, and I think that's a really exciting thing."
The pandemic brought to the forefront the necessity for college students to have access to affordable and reliable broadband. According to a survey conducted by the think tanks Third Way and New America, 57 percent of the college students surveyed said that accessing high-speed internet was a challenge for them. And that challenge will continue for some students once the national emergency is over.
"The option of using campus Wi-Fi and campus computer labs will become available again when colleges reopen, but that doesn't mean the problem is solved," said Alejandra Acosta, a policy analyst at New America. "All that means is that there is an alternative -- which is not ideal -- through which students can log into class and get their work done."
Stakeholders and policymakers should still be concerned about students who lack broadband availability when they're away from campus networks and facilities because it can impact their educational experience, especially in comparison to their peers who have reliable internet at home, said Jarret Cummings, senior advisor for policy and government relations at EDUCAUSE, an association focused on advancing higher education through information technology.
"For students who lack personal access to broadband service, when they have to rely on the campus facilities and networks, it takes away some of their flexibility," Cummings said. "In the same way that students don't want to have to access the Wi-Fi network from their cars now, they wouldn't want to have to worry about that when the campus computer labs are closed [after hours]. Higher education institutions and stakeholders generally want students to be able to learn when and where it's most convenient for them to do so."
The infrastructure package also makes an improvement to the program that will make it easier for Pell recipients to sign up. The Affordable Connectivity Program will allow for data-sharing between federal agencies so that the Department of Education can share who receives Pell Grants with the Universal Service Administrative Company, the operator of the National Verifier platform. Those recipients will be automatically verified, rather than them having to manually submit proof of eligibility, as was the case with the Emergency Broadband Benefit.
"This is important because it would mean more seamless verification and enrollment for eligible households, including Pell students," Bouck West said.
Data isn't yet available on whether the Emergency Broadband Benefit effectively served college students with connectivity issues, said Cummings. But the permanent program, if enacted, is expected to make strides in addressing the broadband affordability problem.
"The size of the appropriation is significant, but we'll have to see whether $14.2 billion is enough to address the affordability problem for all of the eligible populations that are supposed to be covered by the program," Cummings said. "Still, I'd much rather have $14.2 billion than $3.2 billion -- that should provide a much greater possibility of someone being able to get the subsidized service that they need."
The Affordable Connectivity Program only addresses one of the barriers that students may face in accessing broadband -- affordability, but not availability. Other parts of the infrastructure bill are meant to tackle the availability of broadband in unserved and underserved communities, but that's going to take much longer to address, said Cummings.
"Two-thirds of students work while they're in college and even so, about 31 percent of students live at or below the poverty level," Acosta said. "Imagine how that affects where you live and your access to broadband."
And there's more the federal government can do to support college students' broadband needs, even if the infrastructure package is signed into law. Both Cummings and Bouck West pointed to the "Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act" -- introduced last May by Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California -- as further steps Congress could take. The bill would create a $1 billion fund to provide grants to colleges and universities to directly help their students pay for at-home internet connections and equipment such as laptops, routers and Wi-Fi modems.
"Colleges and universities, because of their relationships with their students, are in the better position to understand their students' needs and get the resources into the hands of their students more directly," Cummings said.
Bouck West noted that this approach would also help capture the greatest number of students who have connectivity challenges, beyond only those who are Pell Grant recipients.
"They might not be Pell students or receive federal student aid for a variety of reasons," she said. "Making sure students have expanded access and options available to them to complete their coursework is really important."