Author:  Ruth Umoh         Published: 10/202/2020             Forbes

Bowie State's new Center for Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Nursing

The Covid-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on the deepening digital divide in the U.S. as students move to online learning. For Black college students, the unequal access to digital literacy has a direct impact on their job prospects upon graduation.

In an effort to bridge the digital skills gap, Google announced on Tuesday a partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to provide 20,000 students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with access to digital skills training starting in November.

The tech giant will launch a Career Readiness Program through a $1 million grant that will embed its national online skills training initiative, Grow with Google, and custom workforce readiness workshops into the career centers of 20 schools, with the goal to eventually reach all 101 HBCUs and the nearly 300,000 students that are enrolled in them by fall 2021.

The first four schools in the program are Bowie State University in Maryland, Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, Southern University A&M College in Louisiana and Virginia State University.

The initial $1 million investment is part of a $15 million fund to upskill Black job seekers, which Google announced amid a wave of antiracism activism in June as part of its larger $175 million commitment to racial equity.

Nearly two-thirds of the 13 million new jobs created in the U.S. between 2010 and 2018 require medium or advanced levels of digital skills, such as data analytics or social media and content marketing. But about half of Black job seekers lack the required digital competencies employers seek, hampering their economic mobility and exacerbating wage disparity.

“We’re seeing this digital transformation and acceleration occur, and so we’re making sure that the career centers within these educational institutions have the ability to immediately provide access to skills training,” says Bonita Stewart, vice president of global partnerships at Google and a graduate of the Washington, D.C.-based HBCU Howard University.

The HBCU Career Readiness Program will offer content that includes topics like design thinking, project management and professional brand building.

Google already has ongoing partnerships with HBCUs, most notably through initiatives like its Tech Exchange, a pilot that began in 2017 as a three-month computer science residency for Howard University students but has since expanded to serve students from about a dozen Black and Hispanic-Serving Institutions.

HBCUs play a significant role in the creation of Black science degree holders. Though they represent just 3% of all colleges and universities in the U.S., HBCUs produce almost 30% of Black students with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields.

Still, many lack the technological infrastructure and financial resources to prioritize digital skills training. HBCUs receive a fraction of the average size of endowments that historically white colleges and universities receive and more than 75% of students at HBCUs rely on Pell Grants—a federal subsidy program for individuals with exceptional financial need—to meet their college expenses.

“At the fund, we leverage corporate partnerships that provide students from communities like these with the opportunity to access resources they wouldn’t normally have access to, especially those who are first-generation college students or first-generation corporate professionals,” says Harry Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

“This is a unique opportunity to give these students a competitive advantage and help them advance their skills in technological areas.”