In July 2020, Ernst & Young LLP (EY US) launched our Bridging the digital divide initiative, a journey to support underserved students and other populations by joining forces with organizations to facilitate access to devices, broadband internet service and mentoring.
Too often in the US, a student’s or worker’s potential is limited by geography or economic circumstances. Bridging the digital divide isn’t just about opening doors; its purpose is much bigger. The initiative is an integral part of EY US’ social justice commitment, which is to take decisive action to eradicate racism and discrimination by leveraging our influence to drive strategic change in our firm, in the communities where we work, and support policies that promote digital readiness.
This report summarizes the progress we’ve made in our first year of bridging the digital divide, including our greatest challenges, successes and the impact we’ve made on our communities. We don’t purport to have all the answers, but we want to be leaders in the public discussion by asking the right questions and facilitating much-needed collaboration between the public and private sectors.
Whether you’re part of an organization looking to make an impact or stepping up as an individual, there’s an opportunity for us all to make a difference. When it comes to the pursuit of racial and social justice, there’s no finish line, just a long-standing commitment to build a better world.
Systemic racism, discrimination and injustice are a human rights crisis. We vow to continue to be a force and a voice for a more just and equitable world.
EY US is taking actions to eradicate racism and discrimination by leveraging our influence to drive strategic change within our organization, in the communities where we work, and through public policy.
One area we feel passionate about addressing is the digital divide that disadvantages so many underserved communities, making it impossible for people of color to fully participate in the modern economy and society.
Building access to better lives in Baltimore
Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore’s public schools, talks with Arun Subhas, EY Baltimore Office Managing Partner; and Kevin Brown, EY Bridging Digital Divide Excutive Sponsor, about the firm’s impact on underserved students during the pandemic.
With the assistance of dedicated staff and resources, we empowered 80-plus EY US offices across the country to study the problems and work to effect change in the best and most impactful way for their communities.
What is the digital divide?
The digital divide describes the gap between households with and without access to computers and broadband internet connectivity. This problem became more apparent and aggravated during the COVID-19 pandemic as schools, jobs and business transactions migrated to online platforms. Many students simply did not have the hardware and connectivity needed to learn and perform to their full potential.
Source: Pew Research Center, American Community and Family Survey, NCES
EY US’ Bridging the digital divide initiative launches
As part of our social justice commitments, EY US began reaching out to clients and not-for-profits in July 2020 to create powerful public and private sector coalitions. Our goals were:
To provide devices and broadband for students to connect to the internet.
To engage our professionals as virtual mentors focused on navigating education disruption brought on by COVID-19.
Virtual mentoring includes helping underserved students and their families to manage online connectivity and new devices, maximize online learning, apply to and navigate financial sources to pay for college (including EY College MAP scholarships) and connect with socially distanced internships.
EY US’ Bridging the digital divide initiative follows a “now, next and beyond” strategy that applies our consulting acumen with an eye toward social inclusion. “Now” focuses on working with other organizations to support students, families and educators to provide digital devices and broadband access. “Next” is a stabilizing phase in which virtual mentorship creates a path to training skills and future life readiness that can be elevated to transform communities for the “beyond.”
Connectivity and devices alone cannot solve the digital learning gap. The private and public sectors are critical in the community effort to support access to education for underserved youths and develop future generations of talent through mentorship.
Youths with mentors are more likely to aim higher. That means participating in sports, attending college, taking on leadership roles and volunteering in their communities.
We know the importance of mentorship firsthand, given EY US’ long-standing programs to increase opportunities for underserved youth. In conjunction with Bridging the digital divide, programs such as our flagship College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence) deliver on our commitment to support the next generation. EY College MAP matches employee volunteer mentors with groups of 11th and 12th graders in underserved high schools throughout the US so they gain access to college and succeed. The program demystifies the process of applying to and paying for higher education and encourages students who might not otherwise have considered it an option. We then work with students to build the skills and confidence they need to persist in completing their post-secondary goals.
EY College MAP has been hailed as one of the most innovative and high-impact corporate volunteer programs focused on mentoring in the US. To date, our volunteers have mentored more than 2,000 underserved students across 38 US cities.
The data shows powerful results: 99% of EY College MAP students nationwide graduate from high school and matriculate to colleges and universities or promising trade and military careers (compared with 72% of their relevant peer group).
We’re also engaging EY professionals as volunteer mentors through other impactful programs, such as Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a global nonprofit that brings the power of entrepreneurship to youths in low-income communities. Another top collaborator is Junior Achievement, the world's largest organization dedicated to educating students in grades K-12 about entrepreneurship, and fosters work readiness and financial literacy through experiential, hands-on programs. Third-party collaborators iMentor and United Way are key as well.
One in three youths grows up without a mentor of any kind.
MENTOR, the unifying champion for youth mentoring in the US, defines a mentor as: a “supportive adult who works with a young person to build a relationship by offering guidance, support and encouragement to help the young person’s positive and healthy development over a period of time.”
With the help of our corporate, public and nonprofit collaborators, the impact so far has been inspiring:
Cities where EY US has established Bridging the digital divide coalitions.
Raised through public-private coalitions.
Contributions to the United Way from our EY people to address the digital divide
Underserved students connected to the internet via subscriptions or hotspots provisioned
hours of online mentoring to underserved students since start of the pandemic provided by EY community mentors through programs such as EY College MAP (exceeding our goal of 40k)
laptops delivered to underserved students through our EY College MAP program and Bridging the digital divide initiative
The digital divide impacts the world beyond education, as many companies are digitizing their operations faster than ever. Many crucial government, financial and telemedicine services have moved online. In addition, as many companies took advantage of the pandemic to drive digital transformation, the digital divide actually broadened, leaving more potential employees, customers and stakeholders unable to engage in the new digital world.
The digital divide is a larger problem than any one entity can solve. Efforts to address it require collaboration to be effective and impactful:
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated socioeconomic disparities that have plagued many communities for decades. To make matters worse, the pandemic caused many companies and organizations to accelerate digital transformation investments by two to five years, making digital access a necessity for engaging with employees, customers and other stakeholders.
For all these reasons, everyone stands to lose if we don’t act now to close the divide. Along with the risk of losing access to talent pools and customers, there are much greater societal implications of a larger and growing digital divide.
Depending on the size of the territory, economic conditions, demographics, levels of income and existing infrastructure, a number of strategies are appropriate for bridging the digital divide. Examples include:
- Mentoring through existing or new structures
- Federal or state funding (e.g. American Rescue Plan, federal broadband infrastructure legislation)
- Donations from not-for-profits, charities, corporations and individuals
- Donations, grants and in-kind funding
- Networks that are wireline, wireless, fiber, 5G, WiFi or other technologies
- Broadband infrastructure solutions (negotiated with existing providers or procured with new providers)
Within the broader framework, private sector organizations can provide the vital funding, skills-based volunteerism, technical expertise and convening power to make a positive impact. Through our work we have found that intentional collaboration is most effective when it begins within a city or region. From there, integrated international collaboration fuels funding, investment, innovation and execution. Learn more about how EY local teams are making impact in their communities.
As more options for broadband and device access emerge from existing telecommunications and hardware providers, the focus must turn to mentoring, training and support services offered by both the public and private sectors.
Our observation found that a successful solution and implementation require an effective governance model with visibility at all levels.
A digitally inclusive society brings increased efficiency and innovation for all. Currently, many governments are supporting two operational models: digitally enabled model and an analog model. An example is the smart public transportation fare management program in New York City where indefinite analog support (MetroCard) is required at significant expense.
The unprecedented pace of digital transformation witnessed during the pandemic, while good, is exacerbating the digital divide, and the private sector can take a more leading role to close the gap. For example, companies that now perform their operations through automation — with insight from AI and machine learning — should be intentional about creating strong, transparent and insightful engagement with stakeholders in new ways. Another example: as financial institutions pivot to provide more of their services online, investing in financial literacy offerings to help new customers will be important and impactful.
New digital solutions, if appropriately supported, have the potential to address the growing equity divide across numerous spectrums, including health, benefits, permits, transportation and education.
Expanding the breadth of digital access provides an opportunity to make much needed socioeconomic progress in communities that have been historically hard to reach. This creates a connected community that produces opportunities to learn, innovate and earn in ways like never before, and facilitates an increased standard of living.
As virtual connections tear down more and more physical barriers to learning, service delivery and commerce, the pace of innovation will accelerate with better access to insights, while the cost of innovation will decrease with more digitalization.
Digital technology alone doesn't guarantee success. Success requires structural change and the right resources. What can stakeholders do to support and develop infrastructure, digital skills training, and accelerate innovation?
Organizations can start by looking inward to determine their unique strengths and what role they can play within the larger framework. Here are some recommendations:
- Rethink collaboration, competition and physical barriers to connecting with stakeholders.
- Look for possibilities in nontraditional places. For example, the next big idea may not come from someone with a college degree or from a developed community.
Change won’t happen overnight. We envision a three-step process that embraces the “now, next and beyond” approach to address infrastructure needs and training:
- Find innovative solutions for no/low-cost connectivity and hardware
- Stabilize communities by supporting access to existing services they need (school, government agencies, employment)
- Invest in solutions that take advantage of expanding digital access
- Make more services and experiences fully digital
- Train people to develop and access these new solutions to improve their lives
Organizations can start by looking inward to determine their unique strengths and what role they can play within the larger framework.
Policies need to evolve in a way that fosters structured collaboration that yields to innovation and access to connectivity and devices. Investment costs will be high and may be better recouped if spread across more geographies. Upgrading and expanding existing networks, in addition to new innovative solutions, should be considered.
Vital services and sectors of the economy continue to move online, driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is crucial that all Americans have access to the internet and the basic digital readiness skills to fully participate in today’s society. Such skills are needed now to access critical economic, health, employment and educational resources. As governments seek to address the digital divide by promoting broadband deployment and adoption and by providing internet-enabled devices, training and mentorship in digital readiness must be part of the solution.
Government policies should fund digital readiness training and mentoring programs; develop digital readiness materials and best practices; address the specific needs of minority communities that have been left behind; and track the performance of programs so that resources can be effectively deployed and produce the intended results.
Click to learn more about our EY Digital Readiness Public Policy considerations.
Policies need to evolve in a way that fosters structured collaboration that yields to innovation and access to connectivity and devices. Investment costs will be high and may be better recouped if spread across more geographies.
Mapping digital divide success in 2020–21
Where we’re delivering connectivity, hardware and mentoring to make a difference and bridge the digital divide.
Roll over map to see local success stories and videos