Study Confirms Persistence of Rural Digital Divide

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The Center for Equity in Learning has just released a new study on the persistent digital divide in America’s rural communities. The study’s authors, Dr. Michelle Croft and Dr. Raeal Moore, found that, compared to non-rural students, those living in rural areas frequently still lack reliable access to online resources and learning opportunities.

Key Findings of the Center for Equity in Learning’s New Report

Croft and Moore’s report, Rural Students: Technology, Coursework, and Extracurricular Activities, is based on a data collected from two different student surveys administered to selected students who wrote the ACT in 2018. The primary survey focused on technology access and included over 6,000 respondents. In addition to the students who completed the online survey, a random sample of students who either did not start the survey, or started but did not finish the survey, were sent a paper copy of the survey to complete. The second survey, which was completed by approximately 5600 students, asked students about their coursework during high school.

Croft and Moore’s finding suggest that rural students are still at a great disadvantage when it comes to access to both technology and the course options that are most likely to set them up for success when applying to competitive colleges.

The Rural Digital Divide

One of the major differences between rural and non-rural students is technological access. Croft and Moore explain:

“Twenty-seven percent of rural residents do not have access to broadband at a minimum speed for consistently receiving high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video or supporting multiple streams within a household. Although the Federal Communications Commission provides funding for the E-Rate Program, which provides eligible schools and libraries discounts of up to 90% to fund affordable telecommunications and internet access, 6% of schools still do not meet federal connectivity benchmarks—and the vast majority of those schools are in rural areas.”

Croft and Moore also discovered that when rural students do have access to internet services, they are not always reliable: “Our survey of high school students who took part in ACT testing indicated that rural and non-rural students had differing access to technology. In terms of internet connectivity, rural students were less likely than non-rural students to claim that their home internet access was ‘great’.”

The rural digital divide also extends to computer hardware. Compared to non-rural students, fewer rural students have access to a computer at school and many reported having only one device at home, making completing homework in a timely manner a greater struggle.

Other Obstacles Facing Rural Youth

In addition to the digital divide, rural youth face other obstacles. Because rural schools are often relatively smaller, many still lack the staff needed to teach additional or advanced courses. Croft and Moore report, “50% of students in rural areas and small towns attend schools that only offer one to three advanced mathematics courses. Similarly, the rural students in our study were less likely than non-rural students to report taking or planning to take advanced math and science courses.” This, in turn, impacts their ACT and SAT scores and often erodes their chances of finding a spot in a competitive university.

Proposed Solutions

Based on their findings, Croft and Moore propose three broad recommendations.

First, they recommend that policy initiatives focus on improving access to technology both at school and at home for rural students. On this account, they emphasize, “The Federal E-Rate program must continue to fund access to affordable broadband internet to rural areas and completely close the gap between schools with broadband access and those without.”