Internet Use Among College Students:
Are There Differences By Race/ethnicity?


Kathleen Korgen
William Paterson University

Patricia Odell
Bryant College

Phyllis Schumacher
Bryant College


A large study of college students found that differences by race/ethnicity in use of the Internet exist even among undergraduates at Internet-accessible colleges and universities. Differences were significant for overall use and even among students owning their own computers. While presence or absence of a computer in the home of origin (and length of time, if present) strongly influenced Internet use, such factors did not account for all the differences found by race/ethnicity. Self-reported study time was also found to be strongly connected to Internet use, and this also differed significantly by race/ethnicity.


While many would rejoice at hearing that the “digital divide” is dead, even if only so that they would never have to hear that phrase again, there is no consensus that the demise of the “divide” is at hand. A few recent studies on Internet use indicate no clear gap among racial/ethnic groups’ access to and utilization of the Internet (e.g. Forrester Research, Inc 2000). However, the most recent NTIA “Falling Through the Net” study reveals that the chasm between blacks and whites and Hispanics and whites in Internet use has actually increased among Americans making less than $75,000 a year. Including households of all income levels, blacks and Hispanics are less than half as likely to use the Internet as whites (1999). This is in accordance with several other studies on Internet use and access that report a still deep divide between white and black Americans ( McConnaughey & Lader 1998, The Children’s Partnership 2000, Hoffman et al 2000 ).

Previous research indicates that computer ownership and Internet access in the home strongly influence students’ overall use of the Internet. For instance, Novak’s and Hoffman’s (1998) study, which included both high school and college students, found no gap in Internet use between black and white students who had computers in their home but found that, overall, white students are much more likely (58.9% vs. 31.1%) than black students to have used the Internet in the previous six months. Results of their most recent study (with Schlosser) also support the notion that the presence, or lack thereof, of a computer in the home is the key behind gaps in Internet use in general, and, in particular, between whites and blacks (Hoffman et al 2000).

There are still major differences between the numbers of white and black and white and Hispanic households with computers and Internet access (NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School April, 2000). While 47% of whites own computers, only 23.2% of blacks and 25.5% of Hispanic household have computers (NTIA 1999). According to the existing research, this gap in home access to the Internet remains the central impediment to the narrowing of the “digital divide.” The racial implications of the influence of home computers on Internet use is evident in the fall 1998 HERI survey which revealed that while 80.1 percent of freshman at private universities reported using email during their senior year in high school, only 41.4 percent of freshman at public black colleges stated that they had made similar use of the Internet during their last year in high school (Kooperman 1999).

There is also some evidence that the digital divide between blacks and whites parallels the educational achievement gap between the two groups. Controlling for education, whites are more likely to own a home computer and use the web than African Americans (Hoffman et al., 2000, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies 1999). White students of all ages are also more likely to pay attention and effort to their studies than their black classmates, who run the risk of being labeled such epithets as “oreo” and “sellout” if they excel academically (Belluck 1999, Walton 1999, Noldon and Sedlacek 1994). This contributes to the fact that, innate intelligence aside, many black students lack the grades, study skills, and interest necessary to gain acceptance to and graduate from college. While blacks now graduate from high school at almost the same rate as whites, they lag behind at the postsecondary level, receiving only 8.3% of the bachelor’s degrees and 5.4% of all doctoral degrees awarded (U.S. Department of Education 1999).

This study examines whether or not the digital divide persists throughout the college experience and, if so, whether it is related to a gap in study habits between different racial/ethnic groups. No study heretofore has examined whether or not a gap exists between whites and blacks and whites and Hispanics on a cross-section of public and private colleges and universities. This research examines 1) whether or not such a gap exists, 2) if such a gap exists, whether it narrows from the freshman to senior years 3) and the influence of hours of studying and presence of a computer in the home of origin on Internet use among white, black, Hispanic and Asian college students.


Eight hundred seventy-three students from nine colleges, including 333 from three private colleges and 540 from six public colleges, in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Georgia, and Hawaii participated in the study. Only students who were 25 years of age or less were included in the study. Surveys were distributed to a wide variety of classes at each of the colleges in order to ensure a broad representation of majors. Three hundred fifty-two were from humanities/social sciences, 380 were from business or math/science, and 136 were undeclared. Four hundred eighty students were male and 393 were female. Six hundred fifty-five students were white, 74 were Asian, 83 were black and 61 were Hispanic. Students who declined to identify themselves as to race and students who described themselves as American Indian or of mixed race were not included in the study, since their numbers were too small to analyze. The total number of the original 935 participants excluded for these reasons was 62. Table 1 shows the distribution of major groups by race/ethnicity.

Table 1



Participants completed a questionnaire that assessed demographics and Internet use. Demographic information included age, major, gender, year in college, whether the student lived on campus or commuted from home, parental education, and parental income (as reported by students), and estimated time spent studying per week. Respondents answered the following Internet-related questions: 1) if, and for how long, there was a computer in the household in which they grew up; 2) if, and where, they accessed the Internet while growing up; 3) how many hours per week they use the Internet now; 4) the number of present courses requiring use of the Internet; and 5) the purposes for which they use the Internet. Virtually all students with computers in the home reported that the computer had Internet access. Students were questioned as to whether they lived away from home while attending school, and, if so, whether they owned their own computer. All students were asked how much time they spent studying during an average week.


Yes. An analysis of variance shows that race/ethnicity is a significant predictor of Internet hours (F=2.94, p=0.033). The natural log of Internet hours was used in this analysis, to make distributions closer to normal and variances among groups more homogeneous. Table 2 indicates the mean and median overall hours of Internet use per week among the various racial/ethnic groups in the sample. The only significant differences, using Tukey’s multiple comparisons, were between Asians and blacks (p=0.018); differences between whites and blacks were marginally significant (p=0.10).

Table 2


Does the Gap in Internet Use Narrow From Freshman to Senior Year?

No. In fact, as Table 3 reveals, among all races/ethnicities, freshman use the Internet the most, followed by sophomores, seniors, and juniors, in that order. The significant differences among races/ethnicities persist even when year in school is controlled in the analysis of variance. Both race/ethnicity (p=0.019) and year in school (p=0.014) are significant in this model (F=3.266, P=0.004).

Table 3


Do Hours of Studying Affect Internet Use?

Yes. College students, of all races/ethnicities, who study more also tend to use the Internet more than those students who study for fewer hours per week (F=6.071, P