The need for reliable, affordable internet access has become more apparent than ever. The novel coronavirus pandemic has led to a need for social distancing and staying home whenever possible, meaning that students, professionals, and families in Indiana rely on the internet for their education, jobs, personal needs, and more. Ultimately, our economy and future workforce depends on it. In fact, one Purdue University study found that the state of Indiana would receive about $12 billion in net benefits over the next 20 years if broadband investment were made statewide. However, there are 666,000 people in Indiana who live without access to a wired connection capable of 25mbps download speeds.
In this 10th anniversary year for WGU Indiana, our diverse student body has grown to more than 5,600 and we have nearly 300 remote faculty and staff across the state. That’s nearly 6,000 individuals alone who rely on broadband internet access on a daily basis to perform their functions within an online university setting. However, this moment has forced us all to reckon with the reality that high-speed internet is not a luxury and should not be an advantage granted to some and not others. High speed internet access is not only essential to meeting basic needs, but to develop the state’s future workforce.
65% of Americans are worried they will lose their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, 38% of Generation X employees and 37% of Millennials worry that if they were to lose their jobs, they would need more education to replace their current wage or salary. This is especially worrisome considering all that’s needed to fill achievement gaps in addition to the heavy financial burden that weighs on Americans who decide to undertake a higher education degree.
As of 2018, Indiana needed to fill 930,000 vacancies resulting from job creation, worker retirements and other factors. Of those, 506,000 required postsecondary credentials. Given these statistics, it’s clear that Indiana’s economic future depends on producing more college graduates. WGU Indiana is working to help Hoosiers earn the credentials needed to align with those required by the workforce, but first, students need equal access to the internet that’s required to do so.
Choosing to return to college to complete a degree as an adult under regular circumstances is already a challenge, and the uncertainty surrounding social distancing and the impact of COVID-19 on our mobility adds additional layers of difficulty to that decision. Without broadband internet, that decision is exacerbated if you do not have easy access to online options to further your education. An estimated 750,000 Hoosiers have some college but no degree. It is time for a full realization that online resources are required to re-tool and upskill.
Lack of access to broadband services is a barrier to Hoosiers seeking to fulfill their potential and to the growth of the state’s future workforce. Without it, Hoosiers are unable to further their education, career, or search for a job in the first place.
WGU Indiana has been a pioneer in online learning for a decade, fulfilling its mission to increase access to higher education, help them advance their careers, and support our state’s workforce. This year marks ten years since that mission started. Amid the universal health pandemic and ongoing economic instability, our resolve to help Hoosiers achieve their higher education and career advancement goals has strengthened.
Today, I am urging communities in Indiana to speak up about the need for equal access to broadband internet, to support organizations like EveryoneOn, and let our leaders know they are supported in their endeavor to take action and find solutions to shrink the digital divide in urban and rural areas of the state. The future of Indiana’s economic success and workforce depends on it.
Alison Bell has more than 20 years of higher education leadership experience and is the chancellor of WGU Indiana, a nonprofit, online university offering 60+ degrees in the four colleges of business, teaching, I.T. and health/nursing. WGU Indiana is the first-ever state model within Western Governors University and prides itself on being the nation’s first accredited competency-based university as well as having a diverse student body across the entire state of Indiana.