How Have Rural Students Fared During the Pandemic?
Remote Learning in Rural Areas
Anyone without access to modern information technology faces a digital divide. People without reliable high-speed internet access may deal with barriers in daily life. K-12 and higher education, job searches, and work assignments often require reliable internet access. Communication, healthcare, finance — even entertainment and recreation — may need internet access too.
Like access to electricity, internet access is no longer a luxury amenity. Lack of access represents an equity gap that affects low-income Black and Hispanic communities most often. North Carolina's Broadband Infrastructure Office, for example, defines digital equity as "a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in society, democracy, and economy. Digital equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services."
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, remote learning for K-12 and higher education had become more common. But in early 2020, classrooms and school campuses closed to in-person learning. Many rural students found themselves on the wrong side of this equity and access gap.
Digital Access in the Pandemic Era
In mid-2020, at the pandemic's height in the U.S., an estimated 21 million Americans lacked internet access. But the Pew Research Center, citing a study by Microsoft, said that up to 162 million people may actually lack access to fast, reliable internet.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads of 3 Mbps qualifies as fast and reliable internet. With internet service at those speeds, students can participate in live internet video lectures. They can also partake in other virtual learning experiences. Examples include downloading assignments and taking online tests.
The digital divide in education tends to affect low-income students, and Black, Hispanic, and Native American students most often. Affordability, availability, and adoption can leave students disconnected.
On affordability, paying for the internet might be an expense students' families cannot add to their monthly bills. Regarding availability, about 25% of K-12 students live in areas without high-speed internet. This issue affects Native American and rural students the most. And EdSurge says about 40% of students face "other hurdles" to online learning, like language barriers. This issue mostly affects students learning the English language.
Although 77% of U.S. adults have broadband internet at home, anyone who cannot afford it faces a digital divide. People who use only a smartphone to connect to the internet also face a digital divide. Pew says that younger adults, low-income Americans, and people with a high school education or less may rely entirely on smartphones for internet access. In April 2021, Pew said that just 7% of U.S. adults do not use the internet at all.
The Digital Divide in Education
The U.S. had more than 9 million rural students in grades K-12 in 2019, according to the Rural School and Community Trust. But data shows rural high school students typically enroll and graduate from college at lower rates than their urban and suburban counterparts.
Eighteen percent fewer students submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) from 2019-2020. Approximately 53% of the high school class of 2021 completed a FAFSA by July 2, 2021. That's down nearly 5% from the last academic year. The number of rural students who submitted the FAFSA declined by 5.5% from last year. The number of students in cities who submitted the application also declined by 6.6%.
But the statistics reveal positive news too. For example, 29% of graduating rural high schoolers in 2020 immediately enrolled in college. Suburban students saw similar enrollment rates. And more than 26% of urban students enrolled in college.
Students may submit the FAFSA online or through a mobile app. For students lacking internet access, they may request a hard copy of the FAFSA. They then submit the form by mail. No matter what method learners use, they should ensure they avoid costly FAFSA mistakes.
Students without reliable internet access may face barriers to their education. According to one 2020 survey, 57% of students said access to reliable, high-speed internet made pursuing their education challenging when most learning shifted online. Internet connectivity challenges may worsen college outcomes for Black and Latino students, who finish college less often than students in other racial demographics.
Kevin Jacka, CEO of the Rural Alliance, said the digital divide affected students' ability to chart a smooth transition from high school to college. The existing digital divide, along with the pandemic, changed how students planned for college. The situation "created a traffic jam within the application process and the guidance part of things, from the high school campus to the college campus," Jacka said in an interview with Affordable Colleges Online.
Based near Spokane, Washington, the Rural Alliance for College Success represents nearly 80 K-12 school districts with almost 50,000 students, and 14 colleges and nonprofits. The alliance advocates for solutions that improve college and career equity and access. The alliance says that 73% of its students come from low-income families. Nine percent identify as Native American and 46% identify as Hispanic. Twenty-two percent speak English as a second language.
"A lot of our districts, probably half of our districts, don't have a counselor of any type," Jacka said. Instead, faculty and staff in smaller school districts handle guidance responsibilities on a rotating basis.
Jacka believes the pandemic and the digital divide diminished college enrollment. But he acknowledged the challenge of measuring how much, as the post-pandemic education situation continues to change. If smaller schools and districts do have any counselors on staff right now, Jacka said, that person might currently focus more on overall mental health instead of academic and career guidance.
States that examined how the digital divide affected education found concerning data.
For example, The Education Trust-West found in California that most college students had remote classes in some capacity for the fall 2020 semester. Eighty-two percent of California college students who did not return in the fall of 2020 "cited uncertainty about online learning or new class formats as the reason they are taking time off."
The organization also found that in California, 13% of students of color and 14% of students from low-income households do not have internet access. In addition, 12% of students of color and 15% of low-income students don't own an appropriate device for online learning.
Also, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found that 10% of college students and 14% of K-12 students do not have broadband access at home. Four percent of college students and 12% of K-12 students in Virginia lack a computer at home. The organization noted that since student learning requires both internet access and an appropriate device, "we find that nearly one in five Virginia students lack the necessary resources to succeed in distance learning."Jacka said that some rural students — and parents — do not realize how essential technology has become in modern education. "I think rural kids are caught by surprise by how many classes are online, and were online even before COVID," he said. "They show up to their dorm as a freshman and have four classes. Two [classes] are online and two are face to face."
This reality, Jacka said, means students should expect to develop and use their online learning skills. "It's a different type of learning, and I think if you are in a rural school district that has been traditionally face to face and hasn't done much of an online class — which I would say a lot of ours have not up until this last year — you don't necessarily have that skill set going into college."
Closing the Digital Divide
The pandemic forced schools to unexpectedly and radically change education's delivery model. Some college students found themselves digitally disconnected. They no longer had on-campus internet access found in classrooms, libraries, residence halls, and laboratories.
The Consortium for School Networking conducted a recent report to identify issues relating to the digital divide in education. The organization, which focuses on K-12 education technology leaders and issues, identified four key takeaways. First, learning with video is essential for education. Video comprises 85% of remote learning network traffic.
Second, students rely on wi-fi mobility. Ninety-two percent of students participate in online learning outside their homes. And they also tend to use school-issued and personal digital devices simultaneously, which increases bandwidth use. Next, students in rural communities usually need more support and resources due to limited internet access.
Finally, the consortium found that the quality and configuration of devices matter in remote learning. For example, a computer or tablet designed and set up for a classroom with a strong, uninterrupted Wi-Fi connection, may not work well at home. New devices with limited technical capabilities also reduce the quality of experiences like live video meetings.
The issue captured the attention of state and federal lawmakers. In December 2020, a federal coronavirus financial package omitted billions of dollars that sought to close the digital divide. But in March 2021, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, which includes $7.2 billion for the schools and libraries universal service support program. Better known as the E-Rate Program, the initiative provides funding to rural schools and libraries to get affordable broadband access.
The E-Rate program seeks to solve specific affordability and accessibility barriers facing many students. Eligible schools and libraries can use the federal funding to pay for student laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, and modems and routers. Funding can also pay for broadband connectivity for off-campus use by students, school staff, and library patrons.
"Even before the coronavirus pandemic upended so much of day-to-day life, 7 in 10 teachers were assigning homework that required access to the internet," Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC's acting chairperson, said in a statement. "But data from this agency demonstrates that 1 in 3 households do not subscribe to broadband."
Through Aug. 13, eligible schools and libraries not connected to K-12 schools can apply for federal money through the Emergency Connectivity Fund. Through this program, students who couldn't otherwise afford it may receive an appropriate device and access to high-speed internet to support their schoolwork. The program could eliminate the need for students to travel to access Wi-Fi or the need to use a smartphone to access their work.
Nate Delesline III is a Virginia-based writer covering higher education. He has more than a decade of experience as a newspaper journalist covering public safety, local government, business, transportation, and K-12 and higher education.
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