Perspectives

Expanding Access Through Reducing Cost of High-Speed Internet

On May 9, 2022, President Biden and Vice President Harris announced the securement of private sector commitments towards the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). As a part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Affordable Connectivity Program will provide eligible households up to $30 per month off their internet bills. The private sector commitments of 20 leading internet providers will also offer ACP-eligible households a high-speed internet plan for no more than $30 per month. Households on Tribal Lands are eligible for a discount of up to $75 per month. You can also choose to apply your ACP benefit to a different provider. There are over 1,300 providers that accept the ACP benefit, and you can visit here to find a provider near you. 

Who Qualifies?

Notably for community colleges and their students, low-income families, students who are Pell recipients, and students who participate in one of several assistance programs (as outlined below) will be eligible to participate in the ACP. To qualify for the ACP benefit you must meet any one of the following qualifications:

  1. Income is at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines 
  2. Meet the eligibility criteria for a participating broadband provider’s existing low-income internet program
  3. Participates in one of the following programs:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Medicaid
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA)
  • Veterans pension and Survivors Benefit
  • Free and Reduced-Price Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program, including at U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Community Eligibility Provision schools
  • Federal Pell Grant (received in the current award year)
  • Lifeline
  • Certain Tribal assistance programs, including Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, Head Start (only households meeting the income qualifying standard), Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tribal TANF), and Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations

You can find more information on if you qualify for the ACP benefit here.

Impact for Rural Communities and Students

Rural communities are often plagued by the lack of access to broadband internet. While many individuals within rural communities are conscious of this issue, the underlying faults have been become increasingly more aware over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. As schools and institutions of higher education were forced like many others to shift to a remote setting, many in rural communities struggled with just accessing the internet. Throughout the pandemic many rural communities had to rethink access to courses and assignments because of the lack of high-speed internet. Whether rural institutions were setting up a centralized Wi-Fi hotspot in parking lots or delivering physical copies of assignments, the innovative techniques were only temporary solutions and ultimately unsustainable.

According to the FCC as of 2020, 22.3% of Americans living in rural communities do not have access to broadband internet in comparison to 1.5% living in urban areas This made the shift to remote learning much more difficult for individuals living in rural America. Many students were faced with questions on how they could access their new remote classrooms and course materials, while needing to complete and submit homework assignments. As we have come to find, not only is access to internet needed, but access to high-speed internet is essential and no longer a luxury.

As a result of the ACP benefit, many students will be able to locate a high-speed internet provider that is local to them to obtain access. Among the 20 leading internet providers, 80% of the U.S. population is covered. While not all internet companies offer the Affordable Connectivity Program, individuals can search local providers using this tool. Access to high-speed internet opens many doors and potential options for students. Students with access to reliable high-speed internet can fully participate in their learning, engage with telehealth providers, and further connect with their communities.

Furthermore, access to high-speed internet is only part of the problem. The other concern is having access to a device, such as a tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. For individuals in need of a device and are ACP-eligible households, they can receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase one from a designated provider.

Impact on Community College Students as a Whole

The American Connectivity Program has the potential to help students in rural communities reach their full educational and professional potential, but the impact will be felt beyond rural areas. The pandemic has shown us that even in urban areas, many students – often students who are parents, from low-income families, or first-generation students – struggled with the transition to fully remote learning because of insufficient access to broadband connectivity or lack of devices and technology needed. Students who are parents found themselves having to choose between their education and their children’s as streaming capabilities in their households were limited. Many students who before the pandemic relied on their mobile internet to access course materials found that new platforms were difficult to access strictly from their mobile devices and found themselves in need of laptops and tablets they could not afford without institutional support. First-generation college students struggled without the in-person support that they otherwise would have been able to get before the pandemic. Overall, the ACP will alleviate some of these challenges for students and allow institutions to incorporate the availability of the program into their holistic support services to prepare students for the 21st century economy.

ACCT worked tirelessly over the past two years to highlight the challenges that community colleges and their students faced during the pandemic and pushed for greater broadband access support, which was ultimately included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. ACCT will continue advocating on issues that impact community colleges and obstacles that their students face in benefitting from a postsecondary education.

Sean Robins is the Policy Associate at the Association of Community College Trustees leading the Strengthening Rural Community Colleges Initiative to convene rural community college leaders while providing technical support, assistance, and resources on federal policy and advocacy. This initiative builds on ACCT’s prior work through the Strengthening Rural Community Colleges report that engaged rural community college presidents and trustees to gather information about the challenges faced by these institutions.

Posted: May 11, 2022

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