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NTIA Engages HBCU Students and Leadership on Internet Connectivity Challenges

The Minority Broadband Initiative (MBI) has been closely engaging with Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) presidents, chancellors, and students on Digital Economy related issues since its launch last November. Building and maintaining conversations with key stakeholders has been instrumental in understanding and exploring options for leveraging HBCU broadband infrastructure to connect neighboring communities of vulnerable populations, especially during the outbreak of COVID-19. 

In May and June, the MBI hosted a teleconference with 77 leaders from 57 HBCUs to discuss HBCU institutional approaches, successes, and remaining challenges as they confront the immediate response to COVID-19 and set plans for the longer-term recovery. The schools’ leaders identified an ongoing need for targeted federal funding for broadband access, digital literacy training, and continued close engagement with government at all levels to expand the relationship with the HBCU community and ensure the distinct needs of their institutions are well understood by decision makers.

In May, over 65 students participated in a teleconference hosted by MBI in collaboration with the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to share with the Executive Branch the challenges they have been facing since the outbreak of the coronavirus. The students were all White House Initiative HBCU Competitiveness Scholars, representing 33 HBCUs, both public and private, from across 17 states. Francine Alkisswani, NTIA’s MBI representative, and Elyse Jones, Director of the HBCU Competitiveness Scholars Program, led the students in a discussion that ranged from Internet access to job applications. The takeaway was clear: the coronavirus pandemic negatively affected students across the HBCU community, closing their campuses and shifting everyone to online learning platforms with little time to prepare. The students related the ongoing challenge to maintain their academic performance due to insufficient or total lack of broadband connectivity and difficulty accessing online education resources, as well as the associated risk of a negative hit to their GPAs and future job prospects. The students identified key areas requiring immediate support, including assistance to improve their Internet connectivity and resources to improve instructor knowledge of online tools. Many said they believed the current health crisis exposed a long simmering problem at many HBCUs and their surrounding communities and asked for their schools and government to recognize that the problem goes beyond the current health crisis.

Beyond engaging HBCUs leaders and students in conversations, the MBI has helped facilitate North Carolina Central University’s nation-wide virtual conference, An HBCU Blueprint for the Digital Future and participated in Tennessee State University’s virtual town hall, HBCU Action Nation. Planning is underway for a teleconference with Alabama HBCUs. NTIA will continue to leverage its existing relationships and policy expertise to help expand broadband access and make sure HBCUs have a place at the broadband planning table.

On July 15, NTIA’s MBI, in partnership with its BroadbandUSA program, will hold a webinar about cyberinfrastructure at HBCUs and Tribal Colleges and Universities. To learn more about it and to sign up, visit our BroadbandUSA site.