California Should Expand Broadband Access. Here’s How.

by Su Jin Gatlin Jez

Executive Director


Topics: Affordability, Bachelor's Degrees, Community Colleges, Degree Attainment, Employment, Four-Year Colleges, Sub-Baccalaureate Degrees, Ed Equity, Adults, COVID-19, Workforce, Online Education


The stakes for access to broadband have never been higher and California has a clear opportunity to increase access for low-income college students.

As higher education has almost universally moved online, Californians without high speed internet are being left behind. And those without internet who are left behind are also those who most need internet—Californians without postsecondary degrees.

In past economic recessions, college enrollment has increased with unemployment. As workers find themselves without work and without the prospect of re-employment in the near future, they turn to community colleges to build their skills and knowledge to prepare for the labor market rebound. However, with this recession, community college enrollment has plummeted alongside employment. One key factor for this is likely the lack of fast, reliable internet they would need to take courses right now.

Even after we recover from this crisis, the shift to online education has made its mark.

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, we hope that the end of this crisis is near, but not near enough for those Californians being left behind. The economic impact of this pandemic will likely be felt for years. It is unclear when educational institutions will open fully for in-person instruction—some estimates indicate that schools could be online through the 2022-2023 academic year, and California State University Chancellor Joseph I. Castro expects up to half of CSU courses to be online in the 2021-22 academic year.

Even after we recover from this crisis, the shift to online education has made its mark and both the CSU Chancellor and University of California President have indicated they expect their systems to increase online courses and program offerings. The California Community Colleges had already made significant commitments to online education with the development of its first completely online college, Calbright, and to building its California Virtual Campus Online Education Initiative, a portal to the online courses and programs offered by the other 115 community colleges. Broadband access is critical for both educational attainment and economic strength.

California must expand broadband access—and quickly. While the building out of broadband infrastructure is more time intensive, many Californians do not have broadband internet because they simply cannot afford it. This challenge the state can address quickly. The federal government has already set out the framework for a solution.

The state must make a commitment to affordable broadband now and in our post-pandemic future.

In December 2020, the federal government rolled out the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which provides Pell Grant recipients access to a low-cost broadband plan, similar to the benefit that families who qualify for free or reduced priced lunch qualify for. While this new program supports millions of low-income students, California has the opportunity and imperative to build off this to ensure those low-income students left in the gaps of the federal play are able to access affordable internet.

California can bolster the federal program by using income thresholds for eligibility for the state financial aid program, Cal Grant, to qualify for subsidized internet. To be clear, we recommend focusing on Cal Grant income thresholds and not using other non-income requirements (such as age or GPA) to qualify for a subsidized broadband offer. The non-income requirements unnecessarily constrain those who could benefit.

Using Cal Grant eligibility also provides access to affordable offers to other groups excluded from the federal program, most notably undocumented students and the large number of low-income students who qualify but do not actually receive a grant. Moreover, the federal program will expire six months after COVID, however these students' need for broadband will remain even after the pandemic ends, as California higher education leaders stated that online education is here to stay. The state must make a commitment to affordable broadband now and in our post-pandemic future.

Using Cal Grant eligibility also provides access to affordable offers to other groups excluded from the federal program, most notably undocumented students and the large number of low-income students who qualify but do not actually receive a grant.

As always, the devil of these policies is in the details and this policy is no exception. Some of the key questions to be addressed include:

  • Who should subsidize low-income students? The federal government? The state government? Internet providers? A compromise between the three makes sense as they all stand to lose if we cannot figure out how to extend affordable internet to low-income students. While the federal program is paid for by the federal government, the federal government has resources and powers beyond that of the state. The federal government should keep some skin in the game, and the state and internet service providers should also play their role.
  • How are students enrolled in this benefit? Rather than a burdensome application or verification process, California should leverage information it already collects for Cal Grant eligibility to automatically extend offers to qualified low-income students.
  • Should students continue to have access to low-cost broadband after they leave postsecondary education, Particularly, students who are struggling to transition to well-paying jobs? We think yes. Given the importance of internet access for applying for jobs, conducting interviews, and digital communications generally, students’ needs for high-speed, reliable internet does not cease the moment they toss their mortar board in the air at graduation. As the state invests hundreds of millions in aligning higher education and workforce, it must see successfully transitioning students from graduation to good jobs as part of postsecondary’s role. As such, continuing access to affordable offers until a student is no longer low-income is a smart, long-term move that will help graduates better launch and strengthen an economy built on shared prosperity.

California has an opportunity to make good on its reputation of digital innovation, equity, and global postsecondary leadership by ensuring that low-income college students can afford high-speed, reliable internet. No longer is broadband access nice to have. California will not recover from this crisis if residents cannot turn to the institutions that drive our economic strength and improve individual’s social mobility—higher education.