A Houston Partnership Connects Students to Distance Learning

A young female student takes an online course as part of a distance learning degree program.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, Lone Star College faced the challenge of rapidly switching from a slate of fully in-person courses to an online format. This move exposed a veritable digital divide among Lone Star College students, one that is reflected across the United States. Lone Star College, like many other educational institutions, found that their most vulnerable students were the ones who faced the greatest obstacles when switching to digital learning.

Lone Star College moved quickly to address this digital divide. The college partnered with local internet service provider, Comcast, to ensure that no student had to see their learning experience disrupted because they couldn’t access or afford a broadband connection.

Addressing the Digital Divide

Situated on two commuter campuses located in Lone Star and Houston, Texas, Lone Star College serves a primarily low-and-middle income population, with students’ average family incomes between $27,000-$41,000. The student body is also very diverse: the college population is 77% African American and Latinx.

Even before the pandemic, Lone Star College was working to address gaps in students’ ability to learn remotely. In a survey of students, 20% reported having issues accessing technology, including both lack of household broadband connections and laptop or device access. In the early days of the pandemic, the college knew it needed to tackle this issue head on. “These are students who would have had to stop their education without broadband,” notes Dr. Quentin Wright, president of Lone Star College.

A Critical Partnership

That’s where Comcast came in. Lone Star College worked with Comcast to ensure its students could access Internet Essentials, a low-cost, high-speed internet plan for qualifying low-income families, during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the partnership agreement, Lone Star College and Comcast offered six month of service free-of-charge. After that time period, the plan would only cost $9.95 per month.

Lone Star College identified students who qualified for Internet Essentials and were in-need, then Comcast ensured their households could get set-up in low-risk ways, such as delivering self-installation kits.

The partnership was transformational. In one instance, it helped a student retain her financial aid. “Right before classes restarted, the young lady called us,” shared Dr. Wright. “She didn’t know anything about what was going on because she didn’t have internet.” Lone Star College and Comcast were quickly about to get that student a home broadband connection, allowing her to access the information she need for fall classes. “If she hadn’t contacted us, she might have missed her classes and failed.” Dr. Wright explained, “And when students on financial aid fail, they risk not getting financial aid in the future.”

Quick Approval, Quick Action

By working with Comcast, Lone Star College could also move quickly to get students connected, keeping the semester on-track in spite of the pandemic. In a matter of days, the entire student body was approved for Internet Essentials. “We have what we call ‘auto-approval,’” explains Comcast representative, Melinda Little. “We were able to look at the school’s income levels, see that they were similar to a Title I institution, and get as many people approved as possible. It made the process quick and easy.”

The expedited approval procedure was crucial for Lone Star College, clearing away the necessity for students to prove individual eligibility and allowing Comcast to take advantage of spring break to swing into action. “In our accelerated environment, time could have really hurt us.” says Dr. Wright, “The idea that we could get our entire campus approved out front was big. It enabled us to get [students] access quickly.” And thanks to Comcast’s expert project management team, the turnaround time for student connectivity was rapid: one to three days from sign-up to hook-up.

Equity Includes Technology

“The digital divide wasn’t really recognized before COVID-19 hit,” says Ashley Turner, the head of community relations at Lone Star. “When we talk about equity, you have to have technology. It’s as important as having housing or food security.”

This is something that Lone Star College students and families understand fully. One adult student in his early 50s told the team that he’d already had to interrupt his college education once, and that the last thing he wanted to do was stop again just as he was gaining momentum. In another case, it was a question of reaching across the language barrier. “We had an ambassador who could speak Spanish, and as he was explaining Internet Essentials, he little boy in the family started jumping up and down because he knew what it meant to be getting home internet,” says Little.

“Having this partnership with Lone Star gives me hope that if the private and educational sectors come together, we really can wrap our arms around communities,” adds Turner. “We can wrap our arms around students. No matter what age, wherever they are, we can make sure we get them connected and address the needs they might have.”

Saving the Semester

Ultimately, the proof of the Comcast-Lone Star partnership’s success is in the numbers: despite the 20% of students reporting connectivity problems at the outset, only 4% ended up withdrawing. “If students had to wait for a Starbucks or a library to open back up, or wait for us to redesign our rooms and buildings for social distancing, they would not have been able to finish,” Dr. Wright explains. “But this allowed them to stay in their homes, finish their work, complete their tests, and access tutoring services. It changed everything for us.”

Hundreds of Lone Star College students will soon have a broadband connection. But across the country, thousands more continue to struggle in education, employment and daily life without high-speed internet. Learn more about our efforts to guarantee quality connectivity to every student and sign up to stay involved.