OP-ED: Student access to broadband internet essential to Pa.'s future

Rebecca L. Watts
Western Governors University
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In his budget proposal for the 2021-22 fiscal year, Gov. Tom Wolf highlighted the need to break down barriers for Pennsylvania families by calling for increased investment in education, workforce development initiatives and broadband infrastructure. The General Assembly now begins its work on the budget, knowing that Pennsylvania’s economic recovery must include strategies that address gaps in education, inequities in access to fundamental services, and expanded career opportunities for a greater number of residents.

Though Pennsylvania has slowly been regaining jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s unemployment rate for December 2020 was still 6.7 percent, or about 2 percent higher than it was a year prior. York health care, education, and IT industries require a qualified and skilled workforce to maintain and continuously modernize their services. Reflecting concerns about workforce talent pools, it is not surprising that many employers listed a lack of qualified applicants to fill job openings as the most pressing issue they face in the 2019 Pennsylvania Economic Survey. Without a top-notch, local talent pool to draw from, businesses in York face the possibility of failing to remain viable and competitive in a post-pandemic economy.

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Data have consistently shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color and other at-risk or under-represented populations throughout the commonwealth. Historically under-represented communities — including first-generation college students, low-income populations, students of color, those living in rural areas, and working adults — are potentially hindered from obtaining the marketable skills they need to advance in the current job market. Many of these students are often an overlooked resource for communities like York, but have talents just waiting to be developed.

Providing more people with access to high-speed, broadband internet is the most effective way to expand workforce talent pools. The need for broadband internet spans all ages and geographic locations in the central region of the commonwealth — from Pennsylvania’s rural communities to our cities. While the Federal Communications Commission estimates as many as 800,000 Pennsylvanians live without high-speed internet, research from Pennsylvania State University estimates the true number of Pennsylvanians without broadband at likely being closer to 11 million.

That’s why Gov. Wolf directed $15 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds for schools to secure broadband, mobile hot spots and other platforms that increase equitable access to remote learning late last year. As Pennsylvania’s broadband infrastructure expands, so too will we have more options to train our local workforce with credentials that employers trust.

One such innovative approach is the asynchronous, competency-based model delivered through online technologies. Through this unique approach, students accelerate through their learning at their individual pace, fitting their studies into the spaces of their lives. Competency-based education measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time or “hours” spent in a classroom. With customized support and mentorship, each student progresses through courses as soon as they can prove they have mastered the material.

This approach — the benefits of which I have seen at Western Governors University, the pioneer of the model — has proven to be extremely effective for students and employers alike. Today, WGU students and alumni who call York home are on health care’s front lines at Wellspan Health and UPMC. They are contributing to cutting edge work at Exelon and Morehouse Instruments, and teaching the next generation of learners at Central York and Red Lion school districts.

Innovative learning models are complementary to traditional higher education options in York County, expanding opportunity to fill existing access gaps. Embracing innovative approaches to higher education, including the use of online learning via broadband internet, provides a key long-term strategy for maximizing workforce recovery and development investments and allows the commonwealth to better develop one of its greatest natural resource — the talent of Pennsylvania residents.

— Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 120,000 students, including more than 2,500 students in Pennsylvania. She holds a doctorate in higher education leadership from Ohio University.