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Rural Students' Technology Access Still Lagging Behind, ACT Report Shows

Even though one in five students in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools live in a rural area, they are more often overlooked when it comes to education technology policy reform than their peers in non-rural communities, concludes a report by nonprofit organization ACT. 

The ACT report found that rural students were almost twice as likely (16 percent to 9 percent) as non-rural students to describe the internet access in their home as "unpredictable," and 36 percent of rural students described their internet access as "great," compared with 46 percent of non-rural students.

Figure 01 - Quality of Internet Access, by Geographic Area.JPG

Access to technology is often sparse for rural students. ACT reported that 24 percent of rural students surveyed said they only had one device at home, compared with 11 percent of students in non-rural areas. Plus, 27 percent of rural residents reported they do not have access to broadband at a minimum speed for consistently receiving high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video.

Figure 02 - Access to Technology Devices at Home and in School, by Geographic Area.JPG

The ACT report also found a lower percentage of rural students who stated that they used technology to do online research (51 percent compared with 57 percent) and to complete homework assignments (59 percent compared with 68 percent).

Jim Larimore, chief officer for ACT's Center for Equity in Learning, said in a statement, "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." He added that the majority of rural students are from low-income families and generally earn lower scores on standardized high school assessments. They also often attend college at lower rates than students from non-rural areas.

In an interview with Education Week, Christina Gordon, the senior director of ACT's Center for Equity in Learning, said, "We really thought it was important to look at rural students as a group and what they do and don't have access to with regards to technology, extracurriculars, etc. because in the education conversation, rural students make up a huge group of the education population, but they're often excluded from the conversation."

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The report also found there was a small gap when comparing rural and non-rural students who complete or plan to complete the ACT-recommended core curriculum. The ACT-recommended core curriculum is comprised of four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of science, and three years of social studies. While 81 percent of non-rural students completed or planned to complete this curriculum, 76 percent of rural students did or planned to do the same. For students who were enrolled in a course that awards college credit, the difference between rural and non-rural students was 50 percent versus 60 percent, respectively. Additionally, in a study from 2009, ACT reported that 50 percent of students in rural areas and small towns attended schools that only offered one to three advanced mathematics courses.

Figure 04 - Enrollment in a Credit-Bearing College Course in the Past Academic Year, by Geographic Area.JPG

In an interview with Education Week, John White, the former deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, said, "The findings provide further evidence that states need to do more to provide equitable education funding that addresses the unique challenges facing rural schools."

Figure 07 - Participation in Extracurricular Activities, by Geographic Area.JPG

In its report, ACT recommended that policymakers put more emphasis on closing the digital divide for rural students so they can have greater access to technology at home and in school. 

The data in ACT's report was compiled from two separate student surveys from a sample of students who took the ACT in 2018 with input from ACT Research, ACT's Center for Equity in Learning, and ACT state and federal programs.

Graphics used with permission from ACT.

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