IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How Can Universities Help Close the Digital Divide?

Institutions such as Carnegie Mellon, Purdue, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Missouri are leading projects with community partners to expand high-speed Internet access.

digital divide_2327713880_f116aea3c0_h
Slow or unreliable Internet access is a reality for millions of Americans.
ben dalton/Flickr
With Internet connectivity now viewed as a public necessity for telework and education, universities across the U.S. are partnering with local governments and community organizations on initiatives to expand broadband access and close the digital divide once and for all.

Much of these efforts involve working with local and state leaders to identify areas most in need of resources, which was the focus at Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development, where officials created data tools such as Purdue’s Digital Divide Index to identify key barriers to technology adoption in regions throughout Indiana. According to Director Roberto Gallardo, the aim is to pinpoint where the digital divide is most pronounced, as well as its main causes and strategies to close it.

“We generate a lot of information to turn around and help communities better understand their digital landscape,” he said. “This is to understand which areas of their communities have a higher share of homes without devices, a higher share of homes relying on data only.

“The Digital Divide Index considers socioeconomic indicators, like which areas of your county have higher poverty, disability or seniors,” he added. “These are variables that we know affect technology adoption.”

Gallardo said the university recently surveyed residents to gain a deeper understanding of their concerns relating to costs and service satisfaction, as well as the scope of issues such as the K-12 homework gap that has increased amid shifts to and from remote learning during COVID-19. He said the center also works to spread awareness about broadband access and digital literacy programs in underserved communities throughout the state.

“We partnered with communities last year to develop surveys. The community deploys the survey, and we analyze the data and prepare a report,” he said of the center’s ongoing focus on education efforts. “We try to jumpstart meaningful conversations, and we provide data to make planning a little better or easier.”

Meanwhile, officials at the University of Missouri System are also working to spread awareness about their state's infrastructural needs amid projects that aim to close the digital divide in underserved regions, in addition to workforce training needed to bolster broadband infrastructure. The university offers a training program for utility systems technicians, conducted with the State Technical College of Missouri to train utility contractors, in addition to its Missouri Broadband Resource Rail program to help expand Internet access in underserved communities.

The university's Chief System Engagement Officer Marshall Stewart said much of the system’s current work dates back to 2016, when he traveled the state to learn more about economic development needs in different communities. He said it was clear that the digital divide was a common theme in discussions about access to health care, education and economic development.

“In 2016, over 77 percent of rural Missourians did not have access to broadband,” he said. “We also found pockets in urban areas that were underserved, but it was strikingly apparent in small towns.”

Much like at Purdue, Missouri’s work focuses largely on education and awareness efforts to teach the benefits of broadband connectivity, as well as studying the scope of the state’s digital needs.

Stewart said the university works as a “megaphone” to spread awareness about how state leaders can better address the digital divide, which played an integral role in the establishment of the state’s Office of Broadband Development in 2018.

“We had a lot of people in small towns that did not necessarily know what they were missing. They didn’t have it, and they didn’t realize how underserved they were in some cases. There was an awareness component that needed to be built,” he said. “That led to the second piece, which was [the need for] policy change. There was no state broadband office in 2016.”

Building upon education and outreach efforts, the university also recently helped launch a website,, where visitors can access digital literacy guides and other resources.

“You can’t assume that people know how to use technology,” he noted.

In a similar vein, Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania began working with the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Meta Mesh Wireless Communities in 2020 to provide free Wi-Fi access in high-need communities across the Pittsburgh region, according to Karen Lightman, executive director of the university’s Metro21: Smart Cities Institute.

In addition, she said, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission recently partnered with Carnegie Mellon University, Allies for Children and other organizations to improve broadband service across a 10-county area and help state leaders determine how to make the most out of federal funding for infrastructure needs.

The partnership released a study last month assessing the needs of the region to help policymakers determine where the digital divide is most pronounced. According to the study, about 36,000 households, businesses, schools and libraries across the 10-county region were considered underserved or unserved.

“The issue is the actual physical infrastructure and devices that need to be installed, powered and kept safe,” she said. “That then gets into the issue of equitable fiber.”

Elsewhere, in North Carolina, state officials recently used $1.5 million in federal funding to launch the Technology and Data Institute (TDI) to provide students with free Internet access at home. The initiative, led by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and local and state leaders, aims to expand access to digital education, according to Jeff Whitworth, chief technology officer at UNCG.

“The connectivity challenges that we face can only be overcome through collaboration across community stakeholders,” he said. “Through the TDI, we bring together universities, local government, K-12 schools and community organizations to tackle challenges, such as expanding connectivity and access to students.”

“Access to high-speed connectivity is fundamental to receiving an education," he added. "We understand this more than ever after witnessing the role that technology has played during the pandemic."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misidentified AT&T as one of the parties involved with the Technology and Data Institute initiative at UNCG. The story has been updated to correctly state the involvement of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T).
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.