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May 16, 2000
Computer divide between white, African-American students narrows
Internet gap remains wide; Hispanic students lag behind
Princeton, N.J. -- Although black students are catching up to their white peers in using computers at school, research by a Princeton University economist suggests a gap has opened in use of the latest technology, such as accessing the Internet.
A study by Alan B. Krueger, professor of economics and public affairs, found that between 1993 and 1997, students of all races became more likely to use computers at school. At the high school level, the white-black gap in computer use -- defined as any use involving a computer keyboard -- has disappeared.
Despite the increased computer use by all groups, Krueger's study suggests that groups use the technology for different purposes. Only 14.8 percent of African-American students, and 11.7 percent of Hispanic students, used computers to access the Internet in school in 1997. By comparison, about 20.5 percent of white students used the Internet.
While the narrowing of the black-white gap is positive, Krueger writes, "the more recent opening of a black-white gap in the use of the Internet is a worrisome development. Black students seem to lag behind in using the latest technology in school, and their teachers seem to lag behind in their preparation to use the latest technology.
"If the pace of technological change in education hastens, the digital divide in training students will likely widen," he writes.
Krueger's study follows the U.S. Commerce Department's 1999 report, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, which highlighted that African-American workers are less likely than others to have access to information technology at home and at work. The Commerce Department report did not address the issue of training minority workers to use computer technology. Krueger's study attempts to fill that void by exploring the technology divide among school children.
The study is based on data from the October Current Population Survey (CPS) School Enrollment Supplement in 1984, 1989, 1993 and 1997, which surveyed nationally representative samples of students living in 55,000 households.
Among Krueger's findings:
- Hispanic students, who were more likely than black students to use computers in school in 1993, were less likely than black students to use them four years later.
- In 1993, about two-thirds of all students reported using a computer in school. By 1997, more than three-quarters of all students said they used a computer. Computer use was more prevalent among elementary school students than high-school students.
- 72.1 percent of black students at all grade levels used a computer in 1997, compared to 78.4 percent of white students. In 1993, that gap was about twice as large: 56.5 percent of black students used computers, compared to 68.4 percent of white students.
- The gap between blacks and whites disappeared at the high school level by 1997: 71.8 percent of white students reported using computers, compared to 72.6 percent of black students.
- The gap in computer use traditionally has been larger at the elementary school level. By 1997, a 10-point gap between blacks and whites remained among elementary school students: 81.5 percent of white students used computers, compared to 72 percent of black students.
- In 1997, 67.7 percent of Hispanic students reported using a computer, compared to 78.4 percent of white students and 72.1 percent of black students. For the first time, the gap between white and Hispanic students is wider than the gap between white and black students.
- About half of the black-white gap can be attributed to differences in family income, demographic characteristics, grade level and region of residence. The remaining half may result because schools attended mainly by minority students are poorer and lack resources to purchase computers; teachers in those schools lack adequate preparation to use computers; and teachers may prefer to teach with more traditional methods.
- African-American students are less likely than white students to live in households that own computers. Even when they do, they are less likely to use the computer for educational programs or to complete school assignments.
Krueger called for more research into the effectiveness of classroom computer technology, including a study of which uses work best for different groups of students.
The paper is available at: http://www.irs.princeton.edu/pubs/working_papers.html