How to get more rural kids to college? Universal broadband would help
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As high school graduation season approaches, an under-the-radar trend in American higher education will again make its annual unwelcome appearance.

Rural high schools will send a lower percentage of their graduates to college next fall than their urban and suburban counterparts, and those rural students who do attend will drop out at far higher rates. The net effect: just 29 percent of rural Americans aged 18-24 are enrolled in colleges and universities, compared to 42 percent of all Americans in that age range, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The pandemic had made a bad situation worse.

Since fully two-thirds of all jobs and 80 percent of all jobs that pay a median of $65,000 or more require postsecondary education, this gap has real world consequences, threatening to shut many rural young people out of the 21st century economy and worsen the sense of being left behind that too often characterizes rural America.

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Fortunately, legislation being considered on Capitol Hill right now provides a way out of this widening crisis. The Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan aims to spend $65 billion to bring broadband to every corner of America, including to the 35 percent of rural Americans who currently lack access to it.

How could fast internet service be such a difference-maker for rural students?

While organizations like the one I lead, CFES Brilliant Pathways, along with many colleges, have helped scores of underserved urban students find a path to college by offering mentoring and information programs, rural students have too often been left in the cold.

The calculus is straightforward. Urban communities allow college readiness nonprofits and colleges to connect with many more at-risk students, and have a significantly larger impact as a result, than do sparsely populated rural areas. Colleges are beginning to skip recruiting trips to rural America altogether, where they would need to visit 10 small high schools to see the same of number of students one large urban high school can deliver.

During the pandemic, however, a solution to this geographic inequity emerged — rich online interaction. Virtual technologies have the potential to bring all the facets of college readiness and college admissions programs literally to the doorstep of rural schools and students.

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I know firsthand the positive impact this transformative technology can have. Coronavirus threatened to stop our work in rural communities, a focus area of our organization, in its tracks. With in-person interaction shut down, how could we offer our bread-and-butter services of bringing underserved students to college campuses for familiarization tours and delivering college faculty, financial aid specialists, business people, athletes and others to schools for mentoring and college prep sessions?

Like so many others, and not without trepidation, we transitioned to an online and hybrid method of delivery. Not only were we successful, we were able to scale our program to a degree we couldn’t have imagined two years ago. One example: over the past six months we’ve held more than 100 virtual college and career readiness trainings for thousands of volunteers across the country, including in those rural areas with broadband service, equipping them to act as para-college counselors at their local high schools.

Colleges, too, have learned this lesson. Those I’ve spoken with say there’s no chance they’ll abandon the pandemic-inspired virtual campus tours and information sessions they developed over the last year — a way of doing business could easily be used, they say, to aggregate groups of rural students for virtual college fairs and online campus visits.

To be sure, lack of broadband isn’t the only challenge standing in the way of equitable college opportunity for rural students. Rural parents’ ambivalence about higher education’s return on investment plays a part, as does the perception that rural communities lack jobs that require a college degree. But family attitudes can change, especially as broadband brings new employment opportunities to rural areas, both for remote workers and within companies that would relocate if the service was available. More jobs will also be created as new agriculture technologies requiring sophisticated knowledge of chemistry and biology expand and if proposed renewable energy manufacturing takes root in the heartland.

The picture coming into view is enormously promising: rural students, too often left to pursue higher education without role models to inspire them or information to help them map their way, could have both in abundance in the virtual world that is emerging.

But ubiquitous broadband that reaches into the smallest rural town is an absolute prerequisite.

The American Jobs Plan promises to deliver it. Let’s make sure it does.

Rick Dalton is president and CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways and the author of “Rural America’s Pathways to College and Career” (Rodale Press, 2021.)