While the digital divide impacts the whole school journey, certain aspects of technological inequity directly impact admissions departments. The switch to remote applications during the Covid-19 pandemic revealed many underlying issues. Addressing these can help bring more equity to the admissions process, get more underserved students onto campuses, and strengthen the future workforce with more educated employees to fill the many vacant jobs in our country.

Tests and Counseling

With many standardized tests canceled during the pandemic, students who wanted to test and had the means could travel to out-of-state to places where the tests were still being offered. Many students did not have this option. Plus, in normal times, access to good resources for test prep, including digital study aids, puts those with more technology ahead in the testing game. Students who may have counted on test scores to make their applications more competitive were disadvantaged. However, colleges going test-optional has led to modest gains in enrollment of underrepresented, first-generation, and female students at private colleges.

When high schools went remote, students lost easy access to guidance counselors for help in college applications. First-generation college applicants especially need this guidance as their parents don’t have the life experience to help in this process. Many schools implemented virtual counseling, but it was less accessible to students with inadequate or nonexistent internet connections and devices. Underserved students were hampered by less access to good counseling and digital resources for searching and applying to colleges. Still, these barriers existed before the pandemic, with low-income students often at schools with less counseling and fewer computer resources.


Holistic Admissions Consideration

Holistic admissions policies allow more diverse students to have a shot at admissions. A lack of good digital access might mean that students must demonstrate their potential through more varied means. It was harder for students to complete their essays or online applications during the pandemic because of canceled tests and lack of internet and device access. In addition, many received lower grades due to attendance and homework problems. A comprehensive, contextualized, and systematic consideration process can allow applicants’ access and experience variability while maintaining reasonable decision-making standards. Experience during the pandemic showed that holistic admissions resulted in higher admittance rates for underserved students in many fields of study and at many types of higher education institutions.


Wider Divide After Covid

With high schools and colleges offering virtual education for varying periods during the pandemic, students with inadequate access to devices and broadband fell behind in their studies, had fewer resources for applications, and many failed to enroll in higher education at all. Students who could afford to were buying laptops and upgrading their home wifi access, but many vulnerable students did not have the resources to upgrade. Though many schools offered device and hotspot loans, many students were not reached by these programs. And there are other costs involved in the shift to remote, such as the need for a desk, headphones, or other peripheral devices. In addition, many had difficulty finding a quiet place to learn at home, free from family responsibilities and disturbances. These factors caused the digital divide to widen during the pandemic, and these impacts will continue to make enrolling in higher education challenging for many students in the coming years. Some students had the tools to succeed in distance education, while others were left behind; this needs to be factored in when making admission decisions going forward.


Digital Equity in Admissions and Enrollment

During the applications process, support for students with less tech access is vital, as is using a holistic approach to admissions to allow for a student’s strengths to shine through despite challenges in access. In addition, an individualized approach for applicants to ascertain their digital challenges in the process can help admissions counselors to offer support to find alternative ways to demonstrate capabilities and potential in their applications.

At enrollment, students should be assessed for their skills in navigating technology that they will need to be successful in their studies, just as we test math and language abilities. As more technology is incorporated into in-class and distance learning, digital literacy becomes a necessary competency for students to master. Adding testing and needs-based coursework can help to close the digital divide as students enroll, work towards a degree or certificate, and eventually become job-ready digital citizens.


The Upshot

The digital divide affects all different areas of life, from health care and employment to education. Yet higher education institutions are best positioned to help close the gap by using admissions criteria to admit students affected by that divide and then invest in support and training that will help level the playing field for digitally underprepared students. More research is needed to help recruiters and administrators design admissions criteria and technological supports that make the most difference for students who fall into this chasm. Admissions officers will need to develop holistic processes to ensure admitting students impacted by the digital divide remains a priority.