The U.S. K-12 Digital Divide Has Narrowed, but Must Close to Eliminate Risks to Students and the Economy

More Action at the Federal, State, and Local Levels Focused on Equitable, Universal Digital Access and More Funding Are Needed, Per New Study from BCG, Common Sense, and the Southern Education Foundation
Common Sense Media
Tuesday, January 26, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO, January 26, 2021—As Americans brace for another year of pandemic-related school disruption, the digital divide remains a daunting challenge for K-12 public school systems in most states. Although progress to bridge the divide has been significant, up to 12 million K-12 students remain digitally underserved going into 2021, according to a new report by Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and the Southern Education Foundation.

The report, titled Looking Back, Looking Forward: What It Will Take to Permanently Close the K-12 Digital Divide, released today, provides a granular understanding of the digital divide’s impact on students, and offers a set of recommendations at the federal, state, and local levels to permanently close the digital divide.

The report finds that since March 2020, programs to enable distance learning during the pandemic reduced the number of students without access to broadband service by 20 to 40% and reduced the number of students without access to an e-learning device by 40 to 60%. The new analysis also finds that more than 75% of these efforts will expire in the next one to three years, leaving temporarily connected students once again digitally underserved. 

Leadership Required to Close the Permanently Close the Gap

“States and school districts have stepped up to tackle the homework gap during the pandemic. And while some support has flowed to these efforts from the Federal Government, it has been inconsistent and remains insufficient,” says James P. Steyer founder and CEO of Common Sense. “There remains a significant need to support states and schools that have stood up programs to close the homework gap during the pandemic, and to help them close the divide for good. It is incumbent on the Federal Government and state governments to not only prevent these efforts from stalling, but enhance them, ensuring access to broadband service and devices, and to deploy future-proof broadband infrastructure that can meet the needs of students right now, and going forward.”

“Fundamentally, this is a matter of equity that requires leadership at all levels—from the Federal Government to local communities,” says Raymond C. Pierce, President and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation. “Some of the most successful efforts to bridge this divide have involved school districts working in partnership with local organizations and community advocates to meet families where they are, and to ensure access to the internet and the other technology students need to learn remotely.”

As students return to the classroom—and vaccines bring hope for a post-pandemic future—the momentum to eliminate the digital divide must continue to drive the strong and equitable economic growth necessary to advance society as a whole. 

“This is not a short-term problem. The digital divide predated COVID-19 and will persist beyond it without further action,” says Lane McBride, a BCG managing director and partner leading the firm’s Education, Employment, and Welfare Engagement sector within the Public Sector practice in North America, and a co-author of the report. “We need leaders in government, corporations, philanthropies, and the education sector to seize the moment and work together on practical and lasting solutions.” 

Key Findings

  • Closing the digital divide is a fundamental equity issue, essential to the future of our economy and society 

  • Long-term solutions must address the needs of 15 to 16 million K-12 students who were affected by the divide when the pandemic began

  • State and district efforts have been significant but insufficient; up to 12 million K-12 students remain under-connected going into 2021 

  • Solutions have largely been temporary measures; more than 75% of these efforts will expire in the next one to three years 

  • Long-term solutions must address all three root causes of the divide: lack of available broadband, lack of affordability, and non-technical, non-financial barriers to adoption such as lack of digital skills or distrust of providers 

  • Closing the divide requires $6 to $11 billion for the first year, and $4 to $8 billion annually thereafter to address affordability and adoption gaps, as well as additional investment in universal broadband infrastructure

  • Federal and state policy should enable expanded investment in broadband infrastructure, sustained federal funding ensuring affordable options, bulk procurement and transparent pricing, community-based support for digital inclusion, and ongoing measurement

  • Cross-sector partnerships among public, private and social sectors are essential to close the digital divide – and keep it closed 

This report, the third in a series of national studies, can be downloaded here. 

Also see Closing the Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning (June 2020) and Connect All Students: How States and Districts Can Close the Digital Divide (October 2020).

Looking Back, Looking Forward: What It Will Take to Permanently Close the K-12 Digital Divide was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and BCG.

To arrange an interview with one of the authors, please contact Samantha Tartas at +1 201 741 6761 or [email protected]

About Common Sense

Common Sense is the nation's leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in the 21st century. Learn more at commonsense.org.

To contact Common Sense Media, please contact Jason Maymon at 347-931-1633 or [email protected]

About Southern Education Foundation 

Originally founded in 1867 to educate Black children and children from low-income families in the South, the Southern Education Foundation was a pivotal source of research and data to support legislation and litigation aimed at fighting inequity in education during the civil rights era. The organization today conducts leadership development, research, and advocacy to improve educational opportunities for low-income students and students of color and achieve educational equity in the Southern U.S. It is based in Atlanta, Georgia. Find out more at southerneducation.org

About Boston Consulting Group

Boston Consulting Group partners with leaders in business and society to tackle their most important challenges and capture their greatest opportunities. BCG was the pioneer in business strategy when it was founded in 1963. Today, we help clients with total transformation—inspiring complex change, enabling organizations to grow, building competitive advantage, and driving bottom-line impact.

To succeed, organizations must blend digital and human capabilities. Our diverse, global teams bring deep industry and functional expertise and a range of perspectives to spark change. BCG delivers solutions through leading-edge management consulting along with technology and design, corporate and digital ventures—and business purpose. We work in a uniquely collaborative model across the firm and throughout all levels of the client organization, generating results that allow our clients to thrive.

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