The Need to Connect: Students in Rural U.S. Struggle Accessing Technology, Hurting Their Abilities to Learn

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning Offers Solutions for Fixing the Situation

High school students in rural parts of the U.S. face significant challenges accessing technology that may adversely affect their learning — access that students in more populated parts of the country and policymakers may take for granted, according to surveys of students who took the national ACT® test. However, ACT’s experts also suggest stakeholders can take important steps that can help every student succeed, no matter where he or she lives.

The report, “Rural Students: Technology, Coursework and Extracurricular Activities ,” found that rural students were less likely than non-rural students to claim that their home internet access was “great” (36 percent vs. 46 percent).

Similarly, rural students were almost twice as likely as non-rural students to state that their internet access was “unpredictable” (16 percent vs. 9 percent). At school, however, there were no substantive differences in reported internet quality between rural and non-rural students.

Rural and non-rural students also had differing access to devices both at school and at home. Notably, rural students reported somewhat less access to a laptop or desktop computer at home compared to non-rural students (82 percent vs. 87 percent).

Given that rural students lack access to rigorous coursework, this lack of technological access may impede their course-taking success and their ability to participate in online courses and other opportunities for personalized learning.

Why Technology Matters

Jim Larimore, chief officer for ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning, says, “Too often students in rural areas are overlooked when it comes to education policy reform, despite the fact that nearly one in five students in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools live in a rural area. We need to do a better job of closing these equity gaps to ensure that we’re providing all students with the opportunity to be successful.”

Larimore points out that the majority of rural students in nearly half the states are from low-income families and they generally earn lower scores on standardized high school assessments, attend college at lower rates than do students from non-rural areas, and, as highlighted in the report, have less access to rigorous coursework.

Of the students surveyed, those in rural areas were less likely than non-rural students to complete (or plan to complete) the ACT-recommended core curriculum (76 percent vs. 81 percent). ACT research has found that students who complete a minimum core curriculum that includes four years of English, three years of mathematics (including rigorous courses in Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II), three years of science (including rigorous courses in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics), and three years of social studies earn higher ACT scores than those who do not.

ACT believes that efforts to ameliorate the effects of some of these issues depend increasingly on access to technology, such as broadband and devices. Access to technology is important for education, not only because there is a plethora of technology-based resources for learning, but also to teach students the basic computer skills that are important for many careers.

Further, rural students may have a greater need for technology compared to their non-rural peers in order to access courses not offered at their school, including participation in online dual enrollment courses, and to increase opportunities for personalized learning.

Access to a computer with a dedicated keyboard also varied between rural and non-rural students. Lack of such access may make schoolwork-related tasks like conducting research or writing more difficult.

In addition, a higher percentage of rural students reported access to only one device at home compared to students in non-rural areas (24 percent vs. 11 percent). Given the potential benefits of one-to-one device initiatives, the lack of access to devices could create additional disparities in access to more personalized learning opportunities.

Lower percentages of rural students than non-rural students reported using technology to research/find information online (51 percent vs. 57 percent) and to complete homework assignments (59 percent vs. 68 percent).

Bright Spot: Extracurricular Activities

In positive news for rural students, respondents had greater access to extracurricular activities than non-rural students. Extracurricular activities provide students with an opportunity to explore academic and non-academic interests. Extracurricular activity participation is related to school engagement and may also reduce the likelihood of dropping out of school. In addition, participation in certain extracurricular activities may be related to student learning growth.

Policy Solutions

The report notes that although the Federal Communications Commission provides funding for the E-Rate Program, which provides eligible schools and libraries discounts of up to 90 percent to fund affordable telecommunications and internet access, 6 percent of schools still do not meet federal connectivity benchmarks—and the vast majority of those schools are in rural areas. Among ensuring all schools meet the federal connectivity benchmarks, the report builds off the previous research brief–and recommends targeting rural students’ access to technology- both in school and at home – as a way to support their learning and enable access to advanced coursework and personalized learning opportunities.

ACT recommends the following:

  1. Improve access to technology both at school and home.

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

  1. Increase opportunities for rigorous course taking.

Students must have access to and be encouraged to take a minimum core curriculum of four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of science, and three years of social studies. The survey found that students in rural areas were less likely than non-rural students to complete (or plan to complete) the ACT-recommended core curriculum (76 percent vs. 81 percent).

  1. Expand opportunities for personalized learning.

Students need the opportunity to receive personalized, student-centered learning. In the case of the rural students in the survey, personalized learning could help provide greater access to advanced coursework.

ACT believe these policy solutions can also be applied to students in other communities who also cope with such challenges. For instance, the ACT study “The Digital Divide and Educational Equity” found that the overwhelming majority (85 percent) of students who said they had access to only one device at home were classified as underserved (low income, first generation in college or minority).

Report Data Sources

The data for the research came from two different student surveys administered to selected students who participated in national ACT testing in 2018. The ACT report was written by Michelle Croft, Ph.D./J.D., and Raeal Moore, Ph.D. The research used descriptions from the National Center for Education Statistics to define the areas where students went to school.

The report is a collaborative project that includes input from the following:

  • ACT Research leads the field with authority and high-quality scientific evidence in support of education and workforce practices, solutions, and services. Our mission-driven team comprises a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, and offers a wide spectrum of knowledge and skills, enabling us to deliver quality, high-impact products and services aligned to ACT’s strategy and mission. Together, our research teams provide policymakers, educators, parents, and learners with research-based insights to inform their decision-making, and deliver educators and workforce development professionals with tools and services needed for education and career navigation.
  • ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning, which focuses on closing gaps in equity, opportunity and achievement for underserved populations and working learners. Through purposeful investments, employee engagement, and thoughtful advocacy efforts, the Center supports innovative partnerships, actionable research, initiatives, campaigns, and programs to further ACT’s mission of helping people achieve education and workplace success.
  • ACT State and Federal Programs, which is dedicated to positioning ACT as a thought leader at the national and state levels to inform and influence education and workforce policymaking and is made up of four interrelated units staffed by experts in policy development, federal and state government relations, and outreach to states and national organizations. Together, State and Federal Programs provides insights and resources to states, workforce and education entities, and other organizations to help individuals navigate their education and career pathways.