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How we can ensure that education is truly accessible for all?

I want you to do me a favor.

Think back to the early stages of the pandemic (I know, none of us want to, but please bear with me). Remember the photos that circulated in those days: a barren Times Square, exhausted healthcare workers with N-95 mask lines etched on their faces, and dolphins venturing into empty Venetian canals.

Amidst all the images, those that stirred up the most emotion in me were of school-aged youth huddled in cars and hunched over laptops outside of fast food restaurants in the wee hours of the morning. Without internet access at home, and suddenly unable to access their schools or libraries, these students resorted to leeching off McDonalds’ wi-fi to complete their schoolwork. Their education–their future–depended on the internet offered for free by area restaurants.

The internet allowed many of us to weather the pandemic with (relatively) little pain. We did our shopping, maintained our connections with loved ones, accessed our entertainment, and received our healthcare online. Yet the digital divide left some people out.

The digital divide–the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who do not–is an issue as old as the internet itself. The pandemic simply magnified this disparity, forcing those of us in the education space to come face-to-face with the more than 21 million Americans who have been left behind.

Education Depends on Internet

Although internet access has become increasingly mainstream, there are still places that the internet does not reach. In rural America, those areas have come to be known as the Last Mile. High-density urban areas, while in many ways the opposite of their rural counterparts, are also underserved by internet providers. They’ve earned the distinction of Digital Deserts.

Many of the people who reside in the rural Last Mile or in the urban Digital Deserts are exactly the individuals who could most benefit from what Western Governors University has to offer. We cater to the non-traditional student: those who do not have the luxury of being able to follow a consistent, structured schedule. They are parents and working professionals; it’s inconvenient, if not impossible, for them to sit in a classroom for two hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. They need education delivered at the time, place, and mode that is best for them.

WGU created a revolutionary educational model that has allowed more than 285,000 students to receive a degree. However, we can’t grant students that opportunity if they can’t access the primary tool for our delivery: the internet. And so, while those that are achieving their education–either through the traditional higher education system or online–are able to increase their career momentum opportunities, those stuck in the digital divide don’t have that same opportunity. We have no way to lift all boats, so to speak, without consistent internet accessibility.

Expanding Access, Together

But we are working to lift all boats. In the early days of the pandemic, WGU quickly partnered with the National Governors’ Association to create a space for open, honest, and direct conversation without the intervention of internet providers and their financial interests. We moderated the conversation on behalf of not only our students but everybody who relies on access to the internet.

We have also partnered with rural electric cooperatives, starting in Missouri, to provide financial assistance for WGU students. As these utilities worked to resolve the Last Mile, we partnered to provide tuition discounts for students newly connected to the internet. We wanted to say to these students, “You have access to the internet; now here is an immediate way to improve your life, should you desire to do so.”

At WGU, we are dedicated to making higher education accessible for as many people as possible. And as an entirely online university, we know that this starts by expanding access to the internet. For ideas and solutions on how to improve access, quality, and affordability in education and beyond, check out WGU’s Policy Playbook.

And that, my friends, is my Sage Advice.

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