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Identifying the Gaps in Access to Technology and Rigorous Coursework Between Rural and Non-Rural Students

The following blog is reprinted with permission from the Education Commission of the States. The blog originally appeared on Ed Note.

I went to school in a rural area, surrounded by cornfields. Our high school mascot was even named the Greenwave in honor of the landscape. I was fortunate in that, despite its rustic surroundings, my school was located in a larger town. That meant that more amenities were available — not just more grocery stores and other shopping options, but also greater education opportunities. For instance, while I had the opportunity to take advanced courses in high school, students in rural communities only a few miles away were not as fortunate.

Many years have passed since I attended high school, yet rural communities—defined by the National Center for Education Statistics as settled areas with fewer than 2,500 people—still lag non-rural areas in access and opportunities. A new report from ACT, in collaboration with ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning, Rural Students: Technology, Coursework and Extracurricular Activities, examines rural high school students’ access to technology—both internet and devices—and rigorous coursework.

Drawing on survey data from more than 6,000 high school students, the report finds that rural students have either less, or qualitatively worse, access to technology than their non-rural peers. For example, rural students were less likely than non-rural students to rate their home internet access as “great” (36 percent vs. 46 percent) and more likely to rate it as “unpredictable” (16 percent vs. 9 percent). Rural students also had less access to devices at home and school and reported using technology less often to conduct research or complete homework assignments.

Rural students in our survey were also less likely to take or plan to take advanced-level courses that offer opportunities to earn college credit, such as Advanced Placement or dual enrollment programs. For instance, 60 percent of non-rural respondents had enrolled in some type of credit-bearing college course, compared with 50 percent of rural students. When rural students in our survey participated in a dual enrollment course, they were more likely than non-rural students (24 percent vs. 13 percent) to take an online course, where having adequate technology is crucial to meaningful participation. The disparities in access to technology thus compound the course access issues that rural students face.

Based on the survey results, our report makes the following three recommendations:

  • Improve rural students’ access to technology both at school and at home. Rural students have a better chance of accessing and succeeding in rigorous online courses if all schools have quality broadband access; the federal E-rate program, which funds access to affordable broadband internet in rural areas, can help.
  • Increase opportunities for rural students to take rigorous courses. Students in rural areas were less likely than non-rural students to complete (or plan to complete) the highly rigorous ACT-recommended curriculum (76 percent vs. 81 percent), which includes a minimum of four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of science and three years of social studies. Increasing the number and type of courses available to rural students can help close this gap.
  • Expand rural students’ opportunities to receive personalized learning. Providing rural students the opportunity to receive personalized, student-centered learning can help them achieve greater success in advanced coursework. Policymakers may wish to investigate state and local options for extending personalized learning opportunities to rural areas.
While differences will always exist between rural and non-rural schools, providing equitable technology access across all schools is a necessary step toward ensuring equitable learning opportunities for all students.

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.