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March 2, 2020

Poor Internet connection leaves rural students behind

Slow Internet connections or limited access from homes in rural areas can contribute to students falling behind academically, according to a new report from Michigan State University’s Quello Center. The educational setbacks can have significant impacts on academic success, college admissions and career opportunities.

“We were surprised with how powerful the findings were,” said Keith Hampton, associate director for research at the Quello Center and a professor in MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. “Students without Internet access and those who depend on a cell phone for their only access are half a grade point below those with fast access. This gap has ripple effects that may last an entire life.”

Conducted in partnership with Merit Network and 15 Michigan school districts, the first-of-its-kind report – “Broadband and Student Performance Gaps” – underscores the need for improved infrastructure in rural communities. The report is based on data collected from fifteen school districts covering Mecosta County, St. Clair County and the eastern region of the Upper Peninsula, spanning from the Tahquamenon area to St. Ignace and Sault Ste. Marie. 

Other researchers from the Quello Center – including Laleah Fernandez, assistant director; Craig Robertson, doctoral student; and Johannes Bauer, professor and director – contributed to the report.

The researchers collected and analyzed three sets of data on student Internet access and academic performance that included in-class surveys in 21 schools, PSAT and SAT test scores and home Internet speed tests. Nearly 3,300 students in grades 8-11 – across 173 classrooms – were surveyed based on topics including online activities, grades, digital skills, homework completion and career interests.

Results showed that the most rural and socioeconomically disadvantaged students are least likely to have broadband Internet access at home. Only 47% of students who live in rural areas have high-speed Internet access at home compared to 77% of those in suburban areas. Of those who do not have home access, 36% live in a home with no computer and 58% live on a farm or other rural setting.

Students with no high-speed Internet access at home are also less likely to plan to attend a college or university. On the other hand, students with Internet access have substantially higher digital skills, which are a strong predictor of performance on standardized tests.

“Digital skills are related to proficiency in a range of domains beyond simple technology use, including language and computation. Better home Internet access contributes to diverse technology use and higher digital skills,” Hampton said.

The results show that students who rely on a cell phone only – or who have no home Internet access – had a skills gap similar to the gap in digital skill between 8th and 11th grade students.

“We found that students with even modestly lower digital skills perform a lot worse on the SAT test,” Hampton said. “We measured digital skills on a scale from 0 to 64. The average score was around a 30, but a student who performed modestly lower in digital skills scored about 7 percentiles lower nationally on the SAT. That is true for standardized test scores across all grades, not just the SAT.”

Gaps in student performance related to home Internet access exist regardless of differences in socioeconomic status, such as student race and ethnicity, family income or parental education, according to the findings.

“Much of the focus has been on attributing differences in student outcomes to sociodemographic factors, such as household income or parent education levels,” Bauer said. “Some argue that the same reasons explain why people do not have Internet access.

Hampton explained that the study is unique in that it captured data from students who came from both high- and low-income families who are without Internet access because it’s just not available to them.

“It turns out that deficiencies in student outcomes are tied to both Internet access and socioeconomic issues,” Hampton said.

In addition, students who could only get Internet access at home on their cell phone struggled to utilize the resources available on the Internet, whether due to slow connectivity or caps on data use from local service providers.

“It is wrong to assume that since most have a smartphone, students have sufficient access,” Bauer said. “It turns out that this is not the case. Those who have only cell phone access perform as poorly as those who have no Internet access at all.”

Digital skills serve a key role in many sectors of the economy and are necessary for careers across the workforce. In rural areas, gaps in broadband access could lead to economic impacts on entire communities.

“Those who have better broadband access at home also have higher digital skills overall,” Hampton said. “Those digital skills then position individuals better for lifelong careers. They are better positioned for post-secondary education and are more intent on entering STEM careers, which often pay higher salaries.”

Compared to communities with fast Internet access, those with poor broadband connectivity will experience fewer benefits from the digital transformation, Bauer explained.

Learn more about the report


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MSU and the Upper Peninsula