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Don’t Forget About Rural Higher Education Students: Addressing Digital Inequities During COVID-19

Jenay WillisJenay Willis

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicates one-fourth of rural citizens – 14.5 million people – lack access to broadband internet. Until recently, governmental policies and business practices have not actively attempted to provide high-speed broadband for rural citizens, creating digital inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 school closures. Fortunately, legislative aid and corporate partnerships are in motion to assist rural K-12 students and families.

However, for rural higher education students, the digital divide has not adequately been addressed. Scholars note that colleges and universities often fail to understand rural ways of life, a trend continuing during COVID-19. Higher education institutions rushed to ask students to leave campuses, closed their doors, and moved classes online, yet failed to contemplate consequences for rural students lacking access to online learning tools.

Recent literature discusses what the rural digital divide during COVID-19 means for rural students’ postsecondary access and enrollment but not the persistence of rural students already enrolled at colleges and universities. With rural student graduation rates at only 42 percent, higher education leaders must consider how digital inequities create further barriers to rural postsecondary success.

Acknowledging these challenges during the current health pandemic, we offer varied higher education perspectives and a call to action.

Students Perspectives from Jenay Willis and Ty McNamee

Ty McNameeTy McNamee

As a rural African-American, attending a rural southern institution for doctoral study returns me to my communal roots. After studying for my master’s in New York City, I was happy to return home to be near family, yet challenges arose. Being closer [to home means] traveling to my childhood home often, which for me equates to limited access to high speed internet. Transitioning from in-class instruction to fully online instruction has meant frozen Zoom meetings and emails remaining in drafts after realizing they never sent, resulting in more harm done due to my rural location.

Hailing from a farm/ranch in remote Wyoming, it was not an easy decision to stay in New York City during the pandemic, but it was my only option as a doctoral student. My family’s house, miles from any town and surrounded by trees, does not allow most companies to set up broadband equipment. With limited cell service, it is also impossible to create a smartphone hotspot. I could use a neighbor’s internet or public Wi-Fi in town, but social distancing and travel distances make that difficult. While I am thankful to my institution for allowing me to stay on campus, it is disheartening that I have no option to continue my schooling virtually with my family during this crisis.

Practitioner Perspectives from Karen M. Ganss

My upbringing in rural Colorado affects my daily work supporting students at both urban and rural institutions. Higher education’s rapid transition to remote learning highlights, for me, the great diversity of rural communities and the exacerbation of barriers to success for rural students.

For Colorado students, I’ve noticed that completing coursework at home in a rural, yet affluent community with reliable broadband, is very different than being in a remote area, in a family without high-speed internet, and a town with few (if any) free wireless hotspots. Broadband access affects ability to turn in coursework, watch lectures, access technical software, and communicate with professors.

Karen M. GanssKaren M. Ganss

Rural student success often relies upon establishing a sense of belonging on campus, and connectivity issues now impede this. For example, academically, students now attend advising appointments, office hours, tutoring, and class via video-conference. Socially, universities encourage mental wellness by urging students to connect with peers via online platforms. Yet for many rural families, I am concerned students will be unable to maintain connections to their university experience, resulting in decreased persistence.

Faculty Perspectives from Sonja Ardoin

Having rural Louisiana roots and being a rural North Carolina faculty member, I know the combination of an unexpected shift to fully online learning and the existing digital divide can influence rural student success. First, rural students face double isolation. They feel physically isolated from campus, peers, and supports, and may be virtually isolated as well if they encounter digital engagement limitations. Second, rural students have to navigate exacerbated jargon use. Institutions rely on terms and acronyms in communication (emails, websites, social media) that are typically used in higher education, yet not explained. Students must manage confusion created by jargon use, often hesitating to ask what things mean to avoid “sounding stupid,” while also making decisions (pass/fail, credit/no credit) that impact academic pathways. Third, rural students encounter technology woes. Accessing secure broadband is an obvious issue, but securing course supplies (laptop, software) may also restrict rural students’ engagement. This means institutions might be asking rural students to not go home in order to access technology or to drive significant distances to find parking lot Wi-Fi to attend class and complete assignments.

Where Do We Go From Here?

These perspectives highlight the dilemma of rural students – remain in college towns with reliable broadband or travel home and risk having minimal online access? To move towards an equitable future for rural college students, the support of government, higher education, and corporations is necessary.

Dr. Sonja ArdoinDr. Sonja Ardoin

Looking ahead, this move to fully-online courses may actually improve educational completion for rural populations. Recent surveys predict more students will choose to attend college near home, yet only five percent of four-year universities are in rural places, highlighting online learning offered from institutions as one option for rural individuals desiring to pursue higher education near home. We encourage postsecondary leaders to invest in online learning, even after COVID-19, to fill a gap in rural postsecondary options.

To provide these options, it will be essential to keep lobbying and building programs to extend broadband in rural America. This includes President Trump’s recent signing of the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act into law and new rules from the FCC, establishing the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Even some higher education institutions and internet companies recently started broadband initiatives, which will provide choices for rural students, both during and after COVID-19.

Right now, higher education professionals and faculty can do their part to support rural students by defining jargon/terms, offering phone and video conference appointments, designing asynchronous course aspects and/or offering

Dr. Vanessa A. SansoneDr. Vanessa A. Sansone

circumstantial curricular adjustments, and accepting assignments via physical mail. Additionally, rural areas are not monoliths, so it is helpful to take into account specific situations rural students face, based upon geographic region, background, other identities, and/or specific institutional requirements.

It is our hope that these initiatives will expand U.S. rural broadband access, lessening the digital divide barrier and ensuring rural populations are considered in future institutional decision-making.

Ty McNamee is a Ph.D student at Columbia University’s Teachers College; Jenay Willis is a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia; Karen M. Ganss is the pathways program coordinator in the College of Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder; Dr. Sonja Ardoin is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling at Appalachian State University; Dr. Vanessa A. Sansone is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at The University of Texas at San Antonio. 

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