Many students give little thought to the possibility of digital insecurity on college campuses. The technological privilege of middle- to upper-class students often blinds us to the hardships of lower-income students who are struggling with digital insecurity.
Digital insecurity is the inability of people of low socio-economic backgrounds to access the technology they need. According to the Pew Research Center, around half of adults with household incomes of less than $30,000 don’t have broadband access or computers. Six percent of our student population comes from household with incomes of less than $30,000 a year — several thousand Longhorns are likely affected by digital insecurity. Our university has yet to look into how this issue might detract from the educational experience of its students. However, these students struggle to obtain necessary technological resources, and our university should strive to provide them.
Low-income students are less likely to have their own laptops. Even if they do own laptops, these devices may become damaged, or lost during their time at the university. This demographic of students also needs a longer period of time to save up the money for a new computer.
While low-income UT students can use library computer labs, they are also less likely to live closer to campus where they can easily access these labs. Even when these students do happen to make it to the computer labs, they have to compete with other students who are using that space.
This past May, the Office of the Dean of Students opened UT Outpost, a resource center for students of lower socioeconomic class backgrounds. They provide food items to students who are struggling with food insecurity and the professional clothing necessary for interviews or internships.
The opening of this center is a monumental stride forward in UT’s endeavors to become a more equitable campus; however, students cannot have an equal educational experience if they don’t possess the necessary technology. One way UT could combat this divide is by creating a program where students could check out laptops for prolonged periods of time.
The Fine Arts Library is one of the few places where any UT student can check out laptops. However, laptops are only allowed to be checked out for three days maximum. Students could try to renew their laptop rentals, but these laptops are frequently in high demand and limited supply. Students must turn in the laptop they checked out, and wait an hour to give other students the opportunity to check it out. Because there is such a limited supply and usually a queue of students waiting to use these laptops, having them for continuous and prolonged periods of time is nearly impossible.
The University could help these students by adding a laptop checkout program to UT Outpost where students could check out laptops for half a semester while they are saving for a new one. The city of Austin has implemented programs providing low-income residents with laptops. Recent UT graduate, Casey Brennan, worked with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin to combat the digital divide in our city. Brennan notes that he was surprised by the number of households that don’t have internet access, and programs like this “are definitely helping bridge the divide.”
As UT strives to create a more economically inclusive campus, it needs to consider the effect of digital inequality on its students. In order for every student to have a complete educational experience on the 40 Acres, every student must have access to vital resources. In our increasingly digitally dependent world, that includes basic technological devices.
Oyenubi is a Social Work junior from Temple. Follow her on Twitter at @mazing__G.