Oct 27 2014

Bridging the First-Generation Student’s Digital Divide

Rates of success improve vastly for first-generation college students who have access to technology tools both in and out of the classroom.

Xavier Husser is an 18-year-old African-American freshman at Boston College, who uses a notebook computer every day.

With such technology in hand, he can easily ­complete homework assignments and access required classroom apps and programs. Even in today's mobile device–driven world, owning a portable personal computer is significant to Husser because as a first-generation college student from a working-class family, he understands the critical role technology plays in shaping his college education.

"Now that I'm in college, I use my laptop all the time. I carry my laptop and charger with me everywhere in order to either read for a class or answer emails," Husser says. "Even though I'm more connected than I've ever been in my life, I kind of enjoy it because it prepares me for the corporate world since everything is relying on technology more heavily. I feel as though I am using it to advertise myself and my brand in ways I couldn't if I wasn't exposed to as many electronic devices."

He also recognizes that many of his peers are not as fortunate technology-wise, and do not have access to such mobile devices as a notebook or tablet.

First-generation college students who do not own a mobile device must find other ways to connect online, relying on computers in their college library or labs, which can become especially burdensome. Technology barriers and limited connectivity also lead to ­unpreparedness and learning difficulties. On the other hand, students who are "plugged in" and mobile can better stay connected to homework assignments, internships, friends and their families.

The Digital Divide Is Real

Around the world, certain populations of people cannot access computers and mobile devices on a daily basis. Many of those communities experience economic and social inequality when it comes to technology. The digital divide widens further among ­first-generation college students, particularly those who are students of color and from low-income families. Educators, campus ­administrators and parents have a unique opportunity to increase technology engagement among first-generation students who have been overlooked and underserved for far too long. Research shows that 24 percent of students, or 4.5 million, who are enrolled in postsecondary institutions today are both first-­generation and low-income students.

A more targeted focus could equip those students with the devices, services, security and technology integration they need to navigate their college journey successfully.

Because technology continues to transform daily life, I'm First! — an online community for first-generation college students founded by the nonprofit Center for Student Opportunity — has worked quickly to take advantage of the potential that mobility provides to first-generation students in the 21st century college classroom and beyond. Consequently, CSO has developed a web-based application designed to address the specific needs of first-­generation students in the college search and planning process.

With the help of a technology grant sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the nonprofit organization College Summit, CSO launched I'm First! in 2013. The online community is now highlighted with other grant winners on the College App Map, a tool that connects students to digital resources that can support, inform and coach them to, and through, college. Clearly, tech growth and mobile apps are here to stay, and in the hands of students, they can only improve the learning experience.

Let's support the digital needs of first-­generation college students, and ultimately we will fuel innovation, create jobs and leaders, and spur economic growth for the entire country.