The ability to access secure and engaging learning experiences anywhere, on any device, at any time, was a game-changer during COVID-19. Especially for millions of low-income higher education students who relied on the flexibility that remote learning provided to maintain their academic focus while also managing non-academic priorities.  

As the world emerges from the pandemic, advocates are encouraging colleges and universities that serve large numbers of low-income students to permanently adopt policies that were put in place to better support students during COVID.  

This blog will examine the role remote learning technologies play in supporting the unique needs of low-income students and how these solutions can help colleges and universities promote equity and inclusion.  

Supporting the Whole Student 

Before we take a look at the technologies that can support student success, it is beneficial to gain a better understanding of the students themselves and their specific needs.  

In the academic year of 2020/2021, around 30 percent of the 20.8 million students that enrolled in undergraduate programs in the United States were Pell Grant recipients, a proxy for low-income status. This is a slight decrease from the previous year when 31 percent of undergrads received a Pell Grant [1]. 

A recent study by the Education Data Institute offers additional insights on Pell Grant funding:  

  • 51% of Pell Grant funds go to students whose families earn less than $20,000 annually [2] 
  • 68% of Pell Grant funds go to public universities [3] 
  • 17% of Pell Grant funds go to private for-profit schools [4] 
  • 15% of Pell Grant funds go to private non-profit schools [5] 

With almost one-third of all higher education students in the United States considered “economically disadvantaged”, it is crucial that colleges and universities for­go a one-sized-fits-all approach to how they support student success and con­sid­er the full spec­trum of stu­dent needs, back­grounds, and iden­ti­ties.   

According to Shonda L. Goward, Director of the Student Center for Academic Achievement at California State University, East Bay, colleges and universities that serve large numbers of low-income students need to accommodate the varied lives of their students, and that requires truly understanding the demands and structures of their lives. “Decades of research show that low-income students often are also caring for younger siblings, elders, or their own children; working additional jobs to help their families and pay their way through school; and, in some cases, commuting long distances to campus,” [6] Goward says.   

By higher education institutions promoting a flexible learning ecosystem that considers a student’s entire life, just not their academic journey, Goward believes that millions of low-income students can graduate more quickly; lessening debt loads and making students eligible more quickly for higher-paying work [7].  

Goward has witnessed the positive impact remote learning has had on low-income students firsthand. When the state declared a pandemic in March 2020, California State University, East Bay, shifted quickly to offering more classes online. This included both classes offered in real-time and courses that allowed students to work at their own pace. The campus also shifted student services online, including advising and tutoring services.  

As a result, many of the student workers Goward supervised were able to maintain their academic focus, meet more regularly with their faculty, and work on campus, while still being able to take care of themselves and their families. “They did not have to commute to campus or search endlessly for parking. Access to support wherever, whenever, and however they could find it allowed students to do all they need to in their busy lives and still be successful students” [8]. 

Virtual Computer Labs: 2-year Impact Assessment Conducted by IIT

The Office of Technology Services at The Illinois Institute of Technology has completed a two-year assessment of its transformation from physical infrastructure to Apporto’s virtual computer lab.​ Read their findings here.
Illinois Institute of Technology

A new report fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion echoes Goward’s observations. “This research shows that achiev­ing equi­ty requires tar­get­ed approach­es geared to root caus­es and a thor­ough under­stand­ing of the diverse groups of stu­dents most in need of ser­vices,” said T’Pring West­brook, a senior research asso­ciate at the Casey Foun­da­tion. “The best way to get that under­stand­ing is by lis­ten­ing to stu­dents, engag­ing them through trust­ed rela­tion­ships, and pay­ing atten­tion to their experiences” [9].   

And what are students saying? In a 2021 Digital Learning Pulse survey, 73 percent of students polled “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed that they would like to take some fully online courses in the future. A slightly smaller number of students, 68 percent, indicated they would be interested in taking courses offering a combination of in-person and online instruction [10].  

Clearly, the on-demand nature of remote learning appeals to many students. However, it is an incredibly powerful resource for low-income students who often juggle additional responsibilities that can take precious time away from their studies.  

Equity Through Technology 

If higher education is to become more equitable and inclusive, learning institutions must do more to ensure that all students can benefit from new technologies. Technologies such as virtual computer labs and Zero Trust virtual desktops provide secure anytime anywhere access to critical academic resources via any internet-connected device.   

Although each virtual solution has particular benefits exclusive to them and their specific use cases, users of virtual computer labs, Zero Trust virtual desktops, and cybersecurity labs often cite the following benefits: 

Flexible and equitable access: Virtual technologies enable students to complete their work at the student’s convenience. Students can engage in an active learning environment anytime, anywhere because they are no longer bound to a certain schedule or location. Furthermore, students do not need high-end devices to access advanced resource-intensive applications and do not have to load them onto their personal devices. Once their device of choice is connected to the internet, each user will be provided exactly the same user experience. Someone with a $100 Acer Chromebook will have the same user experience as someone with a $2,800 M1 MacBook Pro [11].    

Furthermore, because students can quickly and easily access all of the digital resources required to be successful in a class on their device of choice, they do not have to worry about their technical readiness since they are already familiar with the laptop or smartphone and can simply focus on learning.     

Collaborative Learning: Like their students, instructors are able to securely access campus applications virtually, giving them much more freedom as to when and where they can review assignments and answer questions. Students benefit from their teacher’s expanded access by receiving feedback and instruction in real-time or outside of traditional classroom hours. Instructors can offer help at various points, as well as track analytics like user participation. 

Top-notch equipment: Schools and students that use virtual technologies have access to cutting-edge technology without the hefty price tag. Companies that build and maintain these virtual technologies compete with each other to stay ahead of technology progression and that raises the quality of options for teachers and students. Students do not have to settle for outdated, yet expensive, equipment because a school cannot afford to replace it consistently. 

Technology, much like education, has its greatest impact when it is available to everyone. Many higher education institutions are strengthening their commitment to equity and inclusion by continuing to provide access to virtual technologies even as on-campus education resumes. By doing so, colleges and universities are ensuring that students have the flexibility they want and the sup­port they need to be academically successful while living full and varied lives. Take the next step to enhancing your students’ learning journey by contacting Apporto today. 

Reference List 

[1] Duffin, E. (2021, November 2). Share of Federal Pell Grant recipients in the United States, as percentage of total undergraduate enrollment from 2010/11 to 2020/21  

[2-5] Hanson, M. (2021, November 18). S Pell Grant Statistics  

[6-8] Goward, S. (2021, April 27). Let’s keep pandemic-inspired innovations that benefit low-income college students  

[9] The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2020, December 14). How Colleges Can Promote Equity to Support Low-Income Students  

[10] McKenzie, L. (2021, March 29). Students Want Online Learning Options Post-Pandemic. 

[11] Beidas, S. and McHugh, L. (2022, March 27) The COVID-19 Pandemic and Retooling Application Delivery: The Transformation from Physical to Cloud-Based Infrastructure. SIGUCCS ’22 Virtual Event, New York, NY, USA.