April 11, 2005
Digital divide project finds evidence that
computers at home improve high school graduation rates
Children living in homes with a computer are more likely to
graduate from high school than young adults without computer
access at home, even when factors like income and parental education
are controlled for, according to UCSC researchers investigating
the "digital divide."
Robert Fairlie's team documented
a 6 percent to 8 percent increase in the high school graduation
rate of youth in homes with computers.
Photo: Louise Donahue
Although many studies have explored the impact of computers
in schools, and the federal government has made computer access
in schools a priority, very few studies have assessed the impact
on youth of having a computer in the home, said Robert Fairlie,
associate professor of economics at UCSC and one of the lead
investigators on the project.
The subject warrants study because 20 million children in the
United States, or 26 percent of children, have no computer access
at home, which could contribute to the nation's persistent racial
disparities in access to computer technology--the so-called
"digital divide," said Fairlie.
Using sophisticated econometrics to analyze two large national
data sets, Fairlie and his research team sought to identify
"spurious correlations" and isolate the impacts of
home computers. They controlled for numerous factors, including
income, education, race, and family motivation on educational
Fairlie's team documented a 6 percent to 8 percent increase
in the high school graduation rate of youth in homes with computers.
Other positive impacts include a lower rate of school suspensions
and overall higher grade-point averages among students in homes
Fairlie is one of four UCSC researchers conducting an ambitious
investigation of the digital divide under the auspices of the
Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community (CJTC). Affiliates
discussed the project during a lunch-hour presentation last
week entitled "Race, Youth, and the Digital Divide."
More than 60 percent of homes in the United States have a computer,
and Internet access is available in more than 50 percent of
homes, said Manuel Pastor, a professor of Latin American and
Latino studies. Less than 20 percent of homes have broadband
Internet access, however.
The "digital divide" appears when the racial makeup
of those homes is examined, explained Pastor. About 70 percent
of Asian and Anglo homes have computers, compared with about
45 percent of African American and Latino households. Internet
access reflects a similar gap.
Racial differences persist in broadband service, with more
than 30 percent of Asian households having broadband, compared
with about 20 percent of Anglo homes, and only about 10 percent
of African American and Latino households, according to Pastor.
"Very sharp disparities are going unemphasized by the
latest government report on computer and Internet access, 'A
Nation Online,'" said Pastor. "Race, education, income,
and language matter."
In previous work, Fairlie has found that racial disparities
in access to computers at home are highest among the age group
8-25. "These patterns are particularly troubling in light
of the presumption that information technology is a new prerequisite
for success in the labor market," said Fairlie, a labor
economist who specializes in minority entrepreneurship.
To further explore the value of computer and Internet access
for youth, the project is conducting in-depth qualitative research
at five community technology centers (CTCs) around the country.
The findings will shed light on how CTCs transform youth and
communities, said CJTC associate researcher Rachel Rosner.
The five CTCs being evaluated have diverse goals and programs,
from a rural drop-in center in California's Central Valley to
a sophisticated Harlem-based web publishing operation run entirely
by high school students, noted Rebecca London, an associate
research professor at CJTC who is taking the lead on the qualitative
part of the project. Yet each facility helps young people gain
the technology-related skills they need while learning to interact
with adults and within an organization, she said.
"The centers provide needed access to computers by filling
gaps that exist at school and home," said London. "Each
center has a particular role in the neighborhood, and they build
networks that help youth in other aspects of their lives."
London's qualitative research on community technology centers,
which represent an important access point for low-income youth,
provides insights into how technology changes the lives of youths,
especially in education. Her research, in particular, attempts
to open the "black box" of how and why access to technology
has effects on educational outcomes as found in the quantitative
The long-term goal of the project is to generate high-quality
research findings that can shape the policy debate over how
to "bridge" the digital divide. The project has funding
from the W. T. Grant Foundation and the Community Technology
Foundation of California.
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