The nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have a rich and storied history dating back to 1837, when the Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was established as the first HBCU.
Today, there are 107 HBCUs — institutions that have graduated 50 percent of Black lawyers, 40 percent of Black engineers, 40 percent of Black Congressmembers – and, of course, the first female Vice President. Yet, they comprise a mere 3 percent of American colleges and universities. Despite their celebrated history and societal contributions, HBCUs have been underfunded for decades, leaving them without the resources that non-HBCUs possess, including crucially important high speed internet infrastructure.
An astounding 82 percent of HBCUs are in so-called broadband deserts, regions that lack fast and reliable internet access. This impacts students’ ability to properly and timely complete assignments, take care of everyday needs, and continue to develop important digital skills. The need for HBCUs to be on equal digital footing has become even more critical as many experts are expecting an influx of students in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision barring the use of race as a factor in college admissions. Morehouse College, for example, anticipates a 50 to 100 percent increase in applications by 2026.
It’s important for Black college students to have a grasp on digital skills even before they set foot on an HBCU campus, but the “digital divide” is likely to have already set them back. Nationwide, only 65 percent of Hispanics and 71 percent of Blacks have internet service of any kind in their homes, compared to 80 percent of whites.
The “digital divide” for Black Americans is equally pronounced in urban and rural areas. Urban whites are more than twice as likely to have high speed internet than urban Blacks. In the rural South, the same split is 77 percent to 62 percent.
The need for high-speed internet access will only continue to grow in coming years. Studies already show a correlation between broadband access and household income, and experts suggest that bridging the digital divide will promote social mobility and economic equality. As the economy continues to modernize, the need for digital skills will only increase.
State lawmakers around the country have an opportunity to build that bridge, including in my home state in Florida where an estimated 508,000 Blacks and 641,000 Hispanics lack access to high-speed internet.
The federal Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program will distribute $42.5 billion to states — including a forecasted $2.3 billion for Florida — to promote high-speed internet access through a variety of measures. In addition to improving broadband infrastructure, the funding — which is expected to be distributed in 2024 or 2025 — will be put toward making high-speed internet more affordable and easier to access where the infrastructure already exists.
Lawmakers in Tallahassee and state capitals elsewhere will be coming under pressure from an assortment of constituencies seeking portions of the federal BEAD funding. But it is imperative that state leaders in Florida and elsewhere ensure that BEAD funds are deployed in broadband deserts, particularly those where too many HBCUs are located.
That would ensure more Americans have a bright economic future and the next generation is prepared to compete in the digital economy.
If my home state is any measure, it is vitally important for state leaders to take action at a time when many do not share in some of the nation’s economic success. In Florida, for example, the state is making positive economic progress, but U.S. Census data shows that Black Floridians’ household income in 2022 was 30 percent less than the household income of white Floridians and fell far short of the national average. More than 20 percent of Black Floridians live under the poverty line, compared to just 13 percent of all Floridians and 14 percent of all Americans. Black Floridians are also more likely to be unemployed, with the Black unemployment rate in the state sitting at nearly four percent compared to just 2.6 percent overall.
State leaders across the U. S. have a sudden federal windfall to confront an inequity – the digital divide – that is deepening social and economic challenges like those we see in Florida. They must move now to quickly deliver these resources to the communities that need them most – those that have been excluded too long.
Rev. Dr. R. B. Holmes, Jr., is the pastor of the historic Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, located in the heart of downtown Tallahassee, Florida’s Frenchtown community. He is president of Live Communications and owner/publisher of the Capital Outlook newspaper and WTAL Radio AM. He is also president of the Tallahassee Chapter of the National Action Network and the National Save the Family Now, Movement, Inc., which he also founded.