Broadband access, specialized outreach key to supporting rural students

A growing number of colleges and universities are focusing on rural students as a distinct demographic group in an effort to address barriers to college enrollment and support degree completion. Historically, colleges have not considered rural students to be an “underrepresented” group, but that appears to be changing, Sheila Martin, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities’ (APLU) vice president for economic development and community engagement, told the The Chronicle of Higher Education

Higher ed experts are working to pinpoint commonalities among rural students, what outreach and supports are most beneficial, and the implications of identifying rural students as a distinct demographic.

Could better broadband access boost rural students’ college-readiness?

Nearly 20 percent of U.S. public school students live in rural districts, and many lag in college-readiness. For instance, just 9.5 percent of rural students passed at least one AP test, compared with 24 percent and 19 percent of students in suburban and urban districts, respectively.

One of the biggest hurdles limiting rural students’ college-readiness is a lack of broadband access, which is necessary to use many test-prep tools and to prepare college applications. “It’s a huge deal right now,” said Bob Klein, an interim dean at Ohio University’s Eastern Campus and author of a 2019 report on rural education, told The Chronicle.

Recognizing the challenge, colleges and universities are taking steps to increase broadband access. Oklahoma State University, for instance, has provided portable Wi-Fi hotspot devices to local libraries, which make them available for checkout. Northern Michigan University has licensed slices of the air-wave spectrum to provide discounted broadband services; its network now serves more than 100 communities and spans more than 16,000 square miles. The university requires broadband subscribers to take at least one class at Northern Michigan annually, in hopes that they will eventually enroll.

Given the complexity of building and maintaining broadband networks, some districts are contracting with outside companies that offer mobile hotspots and Wi-Fi-equipped school buses, which can help students stay productive on long commutes and can park overnight in local communities that would otherwise lack internet service.

Colleges try specialized orientations, internships to improve retention

Beyond broadband, students in areas with low college-going rates and few college-level jobs may have trouble picturing themselves at college. To help rural students feel more comfortable on campus, colleges are developing targeted programming.  

Amid a state-level push to enroll rural students, North Carolina State University in Raleigh hosts a “small-town student” orientation, along with specialized tutoring and support services. Some rural students “need a little bit of additional help when they get here,” Leslie Boney, director of N.C. State’s Institute for Emerging Issues, told the Chronicle. The university also has created a paid summer internship program that helps connect students with college-level career opportunities in rural communities.

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