Students in rural America still lack access to high-speed internet at home despite governmental efforts during the pandemic to fill the void. This lack of access negatively affects their academic achievement and overall well-being. The situation has been getting worse as the urgency of the pandemic has receded.

Those findings are based on a new study we did to determine the post-pandemic outlook on internet access for rural students.

During the pandemic, school districts quickly deployed emergency resources such as Wi-Fi hot spots to facilitate remote learning. In rural Michigan, student home internet connectivity soared to 96% by the end of 2021, a remarkable 16 percentage-point increase from 2019.

However, these gains are proving temporary. By 2022, student access in rural Michigan began to decline. Today, many more students are disconnected than during the height of the crisis. The downward trend is likely to continue as resources from pandemic emergency measures diminish

We surveyed students in grades 8-11 from 18 rural Michigan schools before and after the pandemic, tracking changes in their digital access, educational outcomes and well-being. We found that one-third of rural students still lack high-speed broadband internet at home.

Our recent report highlights how rural gaps in access to the internet, mainly the lack of broadband home internet access, were not resolved over the pandemic. And these persistent access gaps could affect students’ digital skillsacademic performance and well-being.

Rural students lacking adequate home internet face significant educational disadvantages compared with their better-connected peers. These disadvantages include lower classroom grades, lower standardized test scores, lower educational aspirations and lower interest in STEM careers. Our findings link these adverse outcomes, which start with access gaps, to subsequent gaps in digital skills. These digital skills are less likely to develop without reliable broadband connectivity at home.

In early 2020, schools mobilized state and federal relief to provide students with home internet and laptops. Our study demonstrates the success of these initiatives in rural areas, where school-provided Wi-Fi hot spots accounted for nearly all of the 16 percentage-point increase in home internet access during the pandemic’s peak. Importantly, as hot spot funding has ended, many households maintained access by subscribing to local internet service providers.

The success in transitioning students from school-provided Wi-Fi hot spots to paid subscriptions is now at risk. Many low-income households rely on the Affordable Connectivity Program, the nation’s largest internet affordability initiative, created under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021. This program provides a monthly discount of up to US$30 for eligible households and up to $75 for households on Native American tribal lands. The program is set to expire in April 2024.

Read the full article about rural students' internet access by Gabriel E. Hales and Keith N. Hampton at The 74.