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The pandemic promised change. Here, it didn’t come.

During early parts of the pandemic, school bus drivers like Valeria Bowman passed out sandwiches and picked up paper homework assignments along their routes in rural Taliaferro County, Ga. Even now, school staff estimate, at least 40 percent of students still don’t have reliable home internet. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

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Disconnected and further behind

A lot of times we write about hidden barriers to education, surprising complications or bureaucratic complexities that go under the radar but have huge consequences.

The issue Nick Fouriezos recently dug into isn’t like that. The problems of unequal access to the internet in this country are well-known and much-discussed. And when the pandemic came along, the talk only got louder as the challenge became more urgent.

Yet, for all the attention, not much has changed for a number of rural communities, Nick reports. In places like Taliaferro County, Ga., where he visited this spring, many students remain offline and frustrations have only deepened.

After covid hit, Congress set aside billions of dollars for rural regions. The private sector offered help. Recently, the Biden administration announced initiatives promising “internet for all.”

Still, a series of barriers persist. Hotspots don’t work as advertised. Rural broadband grants don’t include affordability in their equations. And faulty government maps leave officials unable to answer very basic questions about who has access and who doesn’t.

The result, Nick writes: “Students in the poorest and furthest reaches of America — places that, like Taliaferro County, need high speed internet the most — remain disconnected, leaving them further and further behind their more urban peers.”

A problem in plain sight

That last hurdle, the faulty maps, is an especially well-known problem that nonetheless still stands in the way. Everyone, it seems — policy experts, lawmakers — agrees that the FCC broadband deployment maps are broken, relying largely on self-reported data that incentivizes providers to overstate their coverage.

The FCC, for example, counts an entire census block as connected if an ISP services even one household with a minimum speed experts say is too slow anyway (25/3 mbps internet, enough for, at most, a single user to stream content).

Lawmakers have known the maps were a problem for years, Nick writes, but it wasn’t until March 2020 that Congress passed a bill to improve them. After multiple delays (the FCC now says the maps will be ready by the fall), some states, including Georgia, have started making their own. In the meantime, the delay is holding up billions of dollars of broadband deployment funds, leaving countless rural communities in limbo. 

Nick told me that he was surprised in his reporting to find so many blindspots, like the bad maps, in the numerous efforts to help connect rural areas. Similarly, he said, he was struck by “all the things you kinda assume are true that are not.”

“We’re taught that where there is a will, there is a way,” Nick said, “and that there are resources out there, but not enough communities ask for them. Taliaffero County asked. They had lots of will. But they still couldn’t find a way.”

+ Read Nick’s story, which was co-published by The Washington Post.

— Sara Hebel

Work with us in El Paso

Higher education is one of the most important — and under-covered — issues on the U.S.-Mexico border. Our partner, El Paso Matters, is hiring a full-time reporter, who also will work closely with Open Campus. Apply here.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Should Pittsburgh’s tax-exempt universities make payments to the city?
Should Pittsburgh’s tax-exempt universities make payments to the city? Other colleges directly contribute thousands – even millions – to their cities each year. But Pittsburgh’s major universities don’t have similar agreements.

From Indiana: Barely more than half of Indiana’s high-school graduates are headed to college, continuing a recent pattern of decline. “We cannot just blame this on the pandemic,” one state official said.

From Northeast Ohio: Cleveland has a talent problem. This summer program is trying to help solve it.

From Mississippi: A new program intended to graduate more nurses will create more student debt and do little to fix the state’s mounting nursing shortage.

From Colorado: The state’s largest open-access institution, Metropolitan State University of Denver, is struggling to get students back. It has college officials worried for the future.

From our newsletters

In College Inside, Charlotte West revisits the last class of students eligible for Pell Grants at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and where they are 28 years later.

In Mile Markers, Nick Fouriezos talks with Jason Gonzales about his reporting in rural Fowler, Colo. There, he learned how advising makes a difference in creating a college-going culture.

In The Job, Paul Fain writes about the rise in outcomes-based, zero-interest loans in short-term training programs.

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