Poor internet service a significant hurdle for students at tribal colleges

Slow internet service and inadequate wireless coverage in Native American sovereign territories set tribal college and university students at a disadvantage, writes Diverse Issues in Higher Education. An ongoing study conducted by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) and funded by the National Science Foundation has found that the average internet speed at tribal colleges is ten times slower than that of the average American higher-ed institution. Slower connections can hamper STEM-based coursework, inter-institutional research, and students’ ability to connect with their instructors.

Inadequate service also is often accompanied by high connectivity costs. Because internet service companies have little financial incentive to improve coverage and speed in sparsely populated areas on Native American lands, tribal colleges and universities can end up “paying the most for the least” service, says Carrie Billy, president and CEO of AIHEC.

Commuters with poor connectivity at home face additional challenges

Internet access limitations can have wider social implications. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that 35 percent of Americans who live on tribal lands do not have broadband service, compared with just eight percent of Americans overall. Many students at tribal colleges commute long distances from homes with poor internet connectivity and rely on campus Wi-Fi. Unable to complete assignments and communicate with professors from home, some resort to finishing homework in campus parking lots after the library closes, and even sleeping in their cars.

“It’s creating a weekday homelessness situation,” says Billy. “These students can’t afford to go back and forth.”

To improve connectivity, some tribal colleges are partnering with state schools. AIHEC, meanwhile, is working toward systemic change, campaigning for the FCC to include tribal colleges in its E-Rate program, which makes broadband access more affordable.

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