Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

Today’s Roadmap

  • 01: Postcards: What a Digital SAT Can’t Fix.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: For Whom the Pell Tolls.
  • 03: In the Sticks: Mapping Broadband Access in America.
  • 04: Laying Seeds: A New Promise for Appalachia.

01: Postcards

While on a field trip, Tony Maxwell took a class of fourth graders to a restaurant at a local state park … and quickly realized he hadn’t prepared them properly for the experience.

The fine silverware felt foreign. As was the concept of a refill, which the waitress explained to one student who marveled that he could ask for another round of root beer. Later, after finishing his hamburger, the student asked if he could have a refill on that, too.

The experience, Maxwell said, was a lesson in “the hidden rules of poverty that we don’t think about.” He works as an instructional supervisor with the Middlesboro Board of Education in Bell County, Kentucky.

Those hidden rules complicate the solutions some might offer for rural America. Take, for example, the College Board’s January announcement that it will move the SAT online by 2024.

Digital testing offers some promise for rural students, in that it could provide access to testing sites that are closer to home — or, perhaps in the future, actually in the home.

The test is also designed to save their work and time if they lose connection or power, a critical measure in communities where steady internet is hardly guaranteed.

College Board has stated it will “address inequities in access to technology” by providing students with a device on test day if they didn’t have a school-issued or personal device to use.

However, access to devices are often the least of districts’ concerns these days, particularly after a pandemic and federal funding that proliferated laptops and tablets across the country.

Moving the SAT online also doesn’t get rid of the other challenges that rural students face.

In Bell County, where a third of residents live in poverty, Maxwell says there are hundreds of students across 12 public housing projects.

Many of those students don’t have access to consistent transportation, either because their family doesn’t own a vehicle or because their parents can’t drive them while working multiple jobs.

The SAT considered offering an at-home digital test, but scrapped it out of concerns that many students wouldn’t have three hours of uninterrupted, video-quality internet access. Instead, the SAT is relying on testing centers — which are few and far between in rural areas — or schools to host the test.

Administrators, such as Allen Fort, the superintendent and principal of the 180-student Taliaferro County school district in rural Georgia, say hosting can be tricky.

Some rural schools may not have computer labs with sufficient room for their students to take the test with privacy. Fort worries about cash-strapped budgets: the additional costs of sending rural teachers to other (more populous) counties, to get certified as SAT supervisors, the price of replacing a school day with a test day, or having to run buses and offer overtime for employees on weekends.

Says Fort, whose county is one of the poorest in Georgia: “A lot of folks would throw it out and say, ‘Here it is: This is equity.’ But where is the accessibility?”

Lately, Summer Martin has been asking a similar question. Dinner table conversations have shifted lately in her household, as her daughter, a high school junior in Bell County, has started worrying about college access … not for herself, but for her friends.

The junior increasingly sees gaps that going digital won’t help. She thinks of her friend, who lives in public housing with her parents, who never attended college. A good student, her friend showed up to take the ACT without an ID or driver’s license, not realizing she needed one to take it.

Even if her friend had known, it would have been a challenge getting one: her parents don’t have a vehicle. The licensing site is currently a half hour away… and soon, that site is slated to shutter, meaning the closest will soon be an hour’s drive.

In a place where some students have never been to a large city (or eaten at a nice restaurant), there are cultural gaps that still leave students struggling to access higher education.

“Many don’t have guidance from parents. The schools are stretched thin,” says Martin, who is the Director of Brand & PR at StraighterLine, an online college course provider: “These kids have potential. They just don’t know how to navigate all the rules.”

Members of Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE), a nonprofit educating families of color about breastfeeding, celebrating their recent court victory. (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Update: Milking It? A month ago, I wrote about the Georgia fight over extensive licensing requirements that required lactation experts to take two years of college courses. The law was ruled unconstitutional by the Fulton County Superior Court on Thursday, momentarily pacifying lactation experts, many of whom are women of color treating communities that often are medically underserved — although the state could push the case to the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Why It Matters: A number of higher ed institutions cater to meeting licensing requirements that many experts believe are dubiously applicable. These arrangements often levy disproportionate financial burdens on communities of color: Medical classes for midwives, in this case, but another example in many states is beauty school requirements so time-intensive that it becomes harder to braid hair than to become an EMT. Courts are beginning to cast a more skeptical glance at such stringent, course-related licensing requirements.

  • For Whom the Pell Tolls. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union called for Pell Grant expansion, free community college, and increased support for HBCUs. Progress in any of those areas would have a significant impact on rural communities, which trend poorer and are historically underserved. But after those planks faltered as part of Biden’s larger Build Back Better plan last year, it’s not yet clear how Biden will back his higher ed talk.
  • Mush! To be candid — never say ‘to be honest,’ my dad often chides, since one should always be honest — I would have included an item on the 50th anniversary of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race even if it didn’t have an education angle. This ended up being the ideal roadside attraction though, thanks to this delightful Daily Yonder tidbit about the volunteer “teacher on the trail,” who writes related blogs and curriculums while flying between checkpoints “to report to students and teachers around the world.”

“This year’s educator is Jim Deprez, a third grade teacher in Hilliard, Ohio. One of his favorite lessons for engaging students is Mush Madness. Student teams design and build sleds, then compete in a tournament to see which sled travels the farthest without losing any of its load. The lesson incorporates engineering, math, and real-world problem solving in an exciting yet friendly competition.”

03: In the Sticks

What is the state of broadband access in rural America today?

The answer is critical to addressing the challenges rural students face as more testing options and educational services move online. Yet any sort of definitive conclusion remains frustratingly elusive.

The FCC’s national broadband map purportedly outlines the contours of internet connectivity across America. In reality, it drastically overstates levels of connection because it counts entire census tracts as “covered” if even one house has broadband access.

That leaves huge swaths of rural America not just uncovered but also worrisomely unseen, even as Congress passed $42.45 billion in funds for broadband through the Broadband, Equity, Access & Deployment (BEAD) Program.

The FCC’s national broadband map suggests eastern Kentucky has multiple broadband providers, but local educators say that many homes actually remain unconnected.

The FCC is working on its maps, and on its very definition of broadband, which it currently defines as speeds of 25/3 Mbps or higher — a minimum benchmark that is insufficient for online education and which lawmakers and experts alike agree should be at least four times that amount.

However, many states, including Maine, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, aren’t willing to wait for the federal government. They are crafting their own maps: partly out of necessity, partly out of distrust.

In 2019, a Pennsylvania General Assembly report found that over 800,000 Pennsylvanians — 6% of the state population — did not have access to broadband despite the FCC’s official maps claiming 100% availability.

In the meantime, there are a few ways to grapple with the state of rural broadband. Allen Pratt, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, estimates that about 15–20% of rural communities don’t have proper broadband access.

While the resources and technology to support faster internet speeds have improved in rural areas, Pratt and other experts say the actual physical implementation of broadband still lags.

In December, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association released a survey of its members, nearly 850 rural telecommunications providers, who represent a large majority of internet providers in America.

Those organizations reported serving fiber internet with 100 Mbps speeds or faster to just over 75% of homes in their coverage areas. That suggests about 25% of homes remain unserved, a figure not too far off from Pratt’s estimation.

States will look to whittle those numbers down even further, with the help of BEAD, which is prioritizing regions with less than 100 Mbps internet and anchor institutions — including schools — that have less than 1 gig.

Until then, McDonalds parking lots across rural America will continue to fill up at the end of the school day, as students use the free wifi to download their homework before returning to unconnected homes.

04: Planting Seeds

  • OHIO Regional Promise Offers Aid for Appalachia. Pell-eligible college freshmen with a 3.0 minimum high-school GPA will be eligible for the scholarship, which covers the remaining cost of tuition and mandatory fees at Ohio University’s five regional campuses, which mostly serve the Appalachian region. Learn more here.
  • CivicLab Launches Five Rural Partnerships. The two-year initiatives include $150,000 in support to improve regional higher education offerings and workforce development. The initial cohort includes groups from California, Florida, Indiana, New Mexico, and Texas, and is supported by Ascendium Education Group (which also provides funding for my work at Open Campus, including Mile Markers).
  • North Carolina’s Rural College Leaders Program. The Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at NC State recently announced this capacity-building program to close equity gaps and improve student outcomes for 10 rural community colleges in the state.

If this reporting is meaningful to you, please consider donating to OpenCampus. You can also help by sharing this newsletter with your friends. They can sign up for their own copy here.

Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.