The digital divide, the gap between students who lack access to technology and those students who have it, is compounding equity problems within U.S. schools, according to new research from ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning. Low-income students with access to only one electronic device in their home — oftentimes only a cellphone — may face challenges that don’t exist for their peers in terms of completing schoolwork. 

The report, “The Digital Divide and Educational Equity,” looks at the 14 percent of ACT-tested students who said they had access to only one device at home. Nearly one-quarter of students whose self-reported annual family income was below $36,000 also reported having access to only one device — a gap of 19 percentage points compared with students from families with annual income above $100,000. 

In addition, students reporting access to only one device at home were far more likely to reside in a rural area than in an urban or suburban area or a town.

The study’s recommendations include expansion of programs designed to increase device access; using materials that can be accessed with mobile devices; and fast-tracking computer accessibility in schools.

The data highlight the importance of ensuring that first-generation students have technological tools available to help them gain access to higher education and attain a college degree, say ACT officials.

“Too often the talk about the digital divide focuses on adults. This survey shows us what it’s doing to young people and how it could affect their learning,” said Jim Larimore, chief officer for ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning. “When we question why we have education inequity, these insights about the digital divide should be kept in mind. We believe our policy recommendations provide a path forward by focusing on expanding device and internet access, as well as ensuring students can access materials needed for school-related activities via mobile technology.”