In June, we mentioned the XFINITY® Internet Essentials plan as an inexpensive way to get online. At the time, the program offered 5 Mbps access for $9.95 per month to low-income households that had a child enrolled in the National School Lunch program. Combined with the $9.25 per month Lifeline broadband subsidy from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Internet Essentials program made going online nearly free for low-income households.

Only two months later, XFINITY made the program even better, doubling speeds to 10 Mbps and adding free Wi-Fi. At the same time, the company expanded access to the program in an attempt to get more seniors online. Now XFINITY has expanded eligibility yet again, this time making it easier for community college students to get online affordably.

Can I sign up?
For now, the program is available only to students living in XFINITY service areas in two states: Colorado and Illinois. To be eligible, students must have a Federal Pell Grant, which provides need-based financial assistance to students. More than 130,000 community college students receive Pell Grants in Colorado and Illinois and are now eligible for Internet Essentials. One noteworthy change is that by basing Internet Essentials eligibility on Pell Grant status, XFINITY opens the program to single students and married students without children.

Why only two states?
It’s likely XFINITY chose the initial areas for expanded service based on previous successes in these areas. According to the company, Colorado has the highest Internet Essentials participation rate: 30 percent of eligible households are enrolled, representing more than 24,000 families and 100,000 people. Illinois, thanks to a larger population, has a higher overall number of people enrolled: there are 30,000 Internet Essentials families, or 120,000 people, in Chicago alone.

However, it’s hard to imagine that if successful, the program won’t eventually expand to other states. Nationwide, more than 6.5 million people attend a community college, and 41.3 percent of them receive a Pell Grant. That means if these eligibility parameters expand to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, almost 2.7 million people will be able to participate. That could potentially double the number of Americans now enrolled in Internet Essentials.

It’s possible it could eventually expand to students at four-year colleges, as well. If that happens, a huge number of Americans could be eligible: in 2012, more than 9.4 million students received Pell Grants.

Why Community College Students Need Low-Cost Internet Access
Three-quarters of Pell Grant recipients have a household income of under $30,000 per year, and only 54 percent of households at that income level have high-speed Internet access. The difficulty of completing coursework without home Internet access is obvious, but so is the importance of earning a degree. In its press release, XFINITY cited one study that claimed an associate degree increases the odds of employment by up to 15 percent for men and 20 percent for women. It also cited another study that claimed earning an associate degree increases lifetime wages by more than $400,000.

A large number of community college students are considered nontraditional. Compared to students at four-year schools, community college students are older and more likely to be financially independent, attend part time, and have dependents. Nearly a third work full time: these aren’t students who have the luxury of relying on Mom and Dad to finance their educations. The average community college student owes $3,700 in student loans — and if you remove the students who don’t take out loans, the average student with a loan owes $10,000.

Are you eligible?
If you think you may be eligible for Internet Essentials, you can apply online and find out for certain. If you’re not, there may still be hope: to see all the broadband plans available in your area, just enter your ZIP code below.