Connectivity is a problem with no easy solution in heavily-forested Taliaferro County, one of the poorest and most rural communities in Georgia. (Photo/Nick Fouriezos)

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: ‘Internet for all’ leaves the most rural, poorest, disconnected.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: The new college advisor: Your bus driver?
  • 03: In the Sticks: Taliaferro County’s uphill battle for broadband.
  • 04: Laying Seeds: Free transit for rural students in Texas.

01: Postcards

In February 2020, Allen Fort was tired — tired of all of the “yak, yak, yak” without any meaningful change to help rural, poorer districts like his. 

“Haven’t we ‘talked’ enough?” the longtime Georgia school superintendent of Taliaferro County wrote in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Fort was planning to retire after more than four decades as an educator. But then the pandemic erupted. He stayed.

And once again, there was talk about rural needs: in particular, the need for internet access.

The pandemic drove the private sector to offer help. Congress, too, set aside billions of dollars for rural communities through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Even in the last few months, the Biden administration announced a Rural Playbook and a $45 billion “Internet for All” initiative, promising to bring “affordable, reliable, high-speed internet to everyone in America.” 

But as I’ve reported from rural districts across the nation, it’s become clear that all those efforts still won’t be enough for the poorest and most remote counties in America.

Persistent, sometimes hidden, barriers continue to stall progress, from finicky hotspots and disorganized officials to faulty federal maps and grants that don’t consider affordability in their equations, which we’ll explore more below.

A CFES Program Director leads students through a leadership activity at Richfield Springs Central School, a small, rural school. (Courtesy CFES)

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Where teachers are most likely to call it quits. Vermont, followed by Arizona, Virginia, Indiana, and Florida, were the 5 states with the highest percentage of teachers planning to leave teaching “as soon as possible,” according to a study by Scholaroo, a company that helps students find scholarships. Their analysis of the “best & worst states for teachers” is worth a read — it also analyzed which states had the lowest and highest concentration of postsecondary teaching jobs, as well as educator pay gaps and per-pupil spending. 
  • What if your bus driver was your college adviser?. Rural areas are facing an advisor shortage, and CFES Brilliant Pathways has a solution: educate everyone (and they mean everyone, from teachers and students to the lunch lady and janitor) about the college admissions process. 

Graduates of its virtual and in-person training seminars earn professional certificates from local universities, and the Essex, N.Y.-based organization recently announced a $1.5M North Country Access Initiative that will help rural students in 20 northeastern New York and Vermont schools attend college.

  • One tiny Colorado town defies rural college-going trends. Fowler, a small town in the eastern Colorado plains with a little over 100 high schoolers, sent nearly all of its students to college in 2018 and 2019 (and in 2020, even as postsecondary enrollment plummeted during the pandemic, it still managed to send 14 of its 23 graduates). For Chalkbeat Colorado, Open Campus local reporter Jason Gonzales explores how a culture of high expectations and tight-knit community has helped Fowler avoid the higher ed challenges many rural places face.
Superintendent Allen Fort is tired of “talk” that doesn’t lead to action for rural communities like his. (Photo/Nick Fouriezos)

03: In the Sticks

Many rural school districts, including Fort’s Taliaferro, offered new computers and mobile hotspots as the pandemic hit, only to see weak, nearly non-existent coverage that left students stranded in unconnected homes.

Geronta Bailey tried to do his work online, but once the hotspots failed to get a signal in his rural wooded area, he “basically wasn’t able to go to school at all.”

“We should have wifi for free. Because it’s something we need. Of course, we need a lot of things. Food. Water,” Bailey told me (Taliaferro doesn’t have a fresh grocery store, although it does have three dollar stores, and about two-thirds of residents rely on private wells for water and septic tanks for sewage). 

The graduating Taliaferro senior has all but written off higher education, saying it isn’t for him. Instead, he’ll likely work at the Amazon warehouse an hour away or take up the offer from the Army recruiter who knocked on his door a few weeks back.

Taliaferro also tried to launch a partnership with the Georgia Cyber Center, which promised to use the county as a rural connectivity roadmap for the entire state — and, perhaps, the nation.

But despite the state’s Lieutenant Governor declaring it “a perfect intersection of innovation” in a televised press conference, that too stuttered.

It took six months for the Cyber Center to send its report determining the cost to provide access: nearly $1.5M upfront for a county whose total annual budget was $4.3M, plus around $200K annually in upkeep.

Even that cost could have been surmountable, with the help of grants. But Taliaferro found it didn’t qualify for USDA’s major broadband grant, the ReConnect program, because the local telecom had scooped it up while school officials awaited that Cyber Center report.

Relyant Communications used the grant to provide broadband internet of 50 mbps — but the cost per household is four times that which the Cyber Center and school were planning to offer residents at similar speeds.

Relyant was able to get the grant without the county even knowing, because it applied first and affordability isn’t a factor for eligibility, experts say. Taliaferro now “has” broadband internet, but school officials estimate abou 40% of students are still not connected because their parents can’t afford to pay the $100 per month for it.

In mid-May, the Biden administration announced a deal to provide $30 per month, 100 mbps plans for low-income households from 20 major internet service providers who already cover about 80 percent of the U.S. population. 

But that still won’t solve the affordability issue for Taliaferro, whose ISP isn’t on that list. 

As I wrote recently, the 20% of Americans most likely to be left disconnected are also disproportionately from the most rural and remote parts of America — and it doesn’t help that faulty FCC maps mean Uncle Sam isn’t even sure who has access and who doesn’t.

Fort remains fed up, two years after all this talk about providing rural connectivity began.

Sitting in the computer lab of his district’s sole school serving all 200 of his K-12 students, Fort points to a small styrofoam cup of water in the middle of the table.

“They’re not lying. You do have a signal now,” he says.

But for Fort it’s like having 10 people at the table, and everyone is thirsty. Sure, they all technically have access to the water in that cup. But as soon as one person starts drinking from it? 

“It runs out.”

04: Planting Seeds

  • Texas Broadband Summit. The Texas Rural Funders recently hosted a broadband summit in Bryan, Texas, near Texas A&M in College Station, bringing together community leaders, rural broadband advocates, and philanthropy partners. 
  • Free transportation for rural students. Rural students in the Coastal Bend region of Texas will be able to hop on “R.E.A.L.” vans for free, a special boon as gas prices rise over $5 a gallon, after the Rural Economic Assistance League won a $90,000 national grant to expand higher ed options. 
  • Better preparing rural STEM educators. Mississippi State and 13 other universities are using $2.4M in National Science Foundation funding to investigate rural STEM teacher preparation, persistence, and retention, at a time where rural schools are struggling to attract qualified teachers.

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