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The Internet: New Engine of Inequality?


Lawrence E. Gladieux and Watson Scott Swail
The College Board
Washington, DC



We review recent developments in information technology and distance learning, and how they combine with economic forces to fuel a global market for higher education. The paper focuses particularly on the question of access: Will the "virtual university" expand opportunities for those who have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education? The Internet shatters barriers of time and space, but emerging technologies may, in fact, deepen the divide between the educational haves and have-nots, and the marketplace alone will not fix the problem. Public policy must intervene to narrow the "digital divide between whites and minorities, the wealthy and less advantaged.

(The authors provide a more detailed analysis of these issues in "The Virtual University and Educational Opportunity: Issues of Equity and Access for the Next Generation," published by the College Board and available for download from

A burgeoning computer market and the advent of the Internet and World Wide Web have sparked a rapid increase in the electronic delivery of higher education. The vision of students collecting certificates or degrees without ever setting foot in a classroom has captured the imagination of education entrepreneurs and Wall Street investors.

But are students in fact flocking to online educational opportunities? The U.S. Department of Education reports that three quarters of a million U.S. students enrolled in more than 15,000 distance education courses in 1995 (U.S. Department of Education, 1997). This estimate, however, includes all forms of distance education, not just online learning, and even such an inclusive estimate does not amount to a significant proportion of postsecondary enrollments.

The truth is we have very little information on how many students or employees are actually making use of online course offerings, and we know less about their characteristics. Without such information we have no way of knowing whether virtual technology is reaching those who might not otherwise have access to higher education, or simply accommodating those who already take advantage of other educational opportunities.

There is no doubt that the World Wide Web shatters barriers of time and space in the delivery of instruction. But its advent is also likely to create new barriers and inequities, simply because of the differential availability of the required technology. Virtual universities will only help those who have the necessary equipment and experience to be comfortable with the technologies.

Computers may seem ubiquitous in today's society, but their distribution is highly stratified by income, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment. For instance, three-quarters of households with incomes over $75,000 have a computer, compared to one-third of households with incomes between $25,000 and $35,000, and one-sixth with incomes below $15,000. White households are twice as likely as black and Hispanic households to have access to computers and online services. And those with a B.A. degree or higher are about four times as likely as those with only a high school education to have online service (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1998).

Similarly, not all students have equal access to computers and the Internet at school. In fact, there is evidence that students with the greatest need get the least access. According to a 1997 study by the Educational Testing Service, the ratio of students to computers is highest in schools with the largest proportions of poor and minority students, and the availability of Internet access goes down as the percentage of such students increases (Coley, Cradler, & Engel, 1997).

More recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate progress in closing such gaps and meeting the Clinton administration's goal of connecting every school to the Internet by the year 2000 (NCES, 1999). Almost 90 percent of public schools had access to the Internet in fall 1998, compared to only 35 percent four years earlier. But school access is not a good indicator of student access. In fact, one study suggests that half the schools that are linked to the Internet are connected only at the library/media center or principal's office (Quality Education Data, 1998).

A better indicator of penetration in the schools is percentage of classrooms connected to the Internet. Here the disparities remain significant. About 40 percent of classrooms in schools with the highest concentration of poor students (measured by percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) have Internet access, compared to more than 60 percent of classrooms in schools with the lowest concentration of poor students. Similar gaps exist by race/ethnicity (NCES, 1999).

Not surprisingly, differentials in experience with technology show up when students enter postsecondary education. UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute concludes from its most recent annual freshman survey: "Despite the overall high levels of computer and Internet use, not all students enter college with Internet savvy" (Higher Education Research Institute, 1999, p. 1). The survey found that the percentage of students using e-mail varies widely by type of institution, with the greatest use among students enrolling in private universities and the lowest rates among students at public black colleges.

In the final analysis, data probably cannot capture the full story here. While education is the great equalizer, technology appears to be a new engine of inequality. Access to technology is not only about hardware and software. It is about effective use, teacher training, and careful integration of technology into the curriculum. The most advantaged citizens-and schools-are most able to benefit from cutting-edge technologies. Advantage magnifies advantage. Those who use computers on a regular basis are more apt to use them routinely in problem solving and critical thinking. They use computers as past generations used pen and paper. Those with limited computer experience will be handicapped in their ability to access knowledge and avail themselves of the ever increasing variety of learning experiences.

Even when computers are available, technological problems-equipment malf-unctioning, Internet congestion and delay-can interfere with online learning and lead to frustration for students and teachers. Internet users know that ability to "surf" the Web is tied to the speed and reliability of the Internet provider, CPU, and modem speed, and ultimately to the costs of these services and equipment. Technical difficulties can befall anyone in cyberspace, and usually do at one time or another, but they disproportionately affect those who have the least ability to pay.

The good news in the U.S. is that more people are attaining higher levels of education and filling millions of skilled, high-paying jobs in a strong economy. The bad news is that the least educated and skilled are getting a smaller piece of the pie and wealth disparities have reached unprecedented extremes. Narrowing this gap is surely one of the greatest challenges facing our country.

The virtual campus may widen opportunities for some, but not by and large for those at the low end of the socioeconomic scale, who have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education. Virtual space is infinite, but it does not promise universality or equity, nor is it appropriate for many students whose experience with technology is limited-and who might benefit far more from traditional delivery systems.

Computers and the Internet are nonetheless changing the world as we speak. Fast and reliable access to technology increasingly drives our economy and is key to individual opportunity in today's world. Special efforts must be made to equalize technology's availability and expand opportunity for all.

We offer no grand solutions. The issues are complex and the pace of technological change is overwhelming. But we do know that the marketplace by itself will not ensure access to technology. Government must play a part via incentive and safety-net programs to narrow the digital divide. The e-rate program under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, for example, has provided almost $2 billion in discounts for schools and libraries across the country.

But the e-rate program is only one strategy. Ultimately it will require the focus and determination of stakeholders in higher education, corporate America, and all levels of government to ensure that the technology revolution opens doors to all students, regardless of advantage.


Coley, Richard J., John Cradler, and Penelope K. Engel (1997, May). "Computers and Classrooms: The Status of Technology in U.S. Schools." Policy Information Report. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Higher Education Research Institute (1999). "Freshmen Embrace the Internet as an Educational Tool." The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1998. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA.

Quality Education Data (1998). Internet Usage in Public Schools 1998, 3rd Edition. Denver, CO: Quality Education Data.

U.S. Department of Commerce (1998). Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide. Washington, DC: National Telecommunications & Information Administration.

U.S. Department of Education (1997). Distance Education in Higher Education Institutions. A Postsecondary Education Quick Information System Report (NCES 98-062). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, OERI.

U.S. Department of Education (1999). "Internet Access in Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-98." Issue Brief (NCES 1999-017). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.