youth technologyBroadband is a critical element of a new approach to rural higher education that aims to combine the best of on-line and in-class teaching techniques to address what some people call rural “higher education deserts.” By using broadband in rural higher education deserts, in combination with brick-and-mortar higher education centers, some states are finding ways of enabling local residents to earn college degrees, as a recent blog post from media outlet Inside Higher Ed explains.

Several states – including Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia – have established higher education centers that provide physical infrastructure for colleges to offer online and in-class instruction in places lacking traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. Students also have the option of participating in class via videoconferencing over a broadband connection to a local high school or other location.

Broadband in Rural Higher Education Deserts
The blog post cites data showing that as many as 41 million American adults live 25 miles or more from the nearest college or university or in areas “where a single community college is the only source of broad-access public higher education within that distance.” And three million people in these higher education deserts also lack broadband – hence the need for a brick-and-mortar location as well as an online option.

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The brick-and-mortar location serves another purpose as well. Those taking classes on line are required to participate remotely in classes held in the higher education centers at specific dates and times – a requirement that can help the online students remain engaged in their course work so that they can complete the course work in a timely fashion.

In Pennsylvania, the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC) operates six higher education centers scattered throughout a nine-county area, the Inside Higher Ed blog post notes. The NPRC doesn’t confer degrees but instead provides the infrastructure that other institutions can use to hold classes supporting both in-person and online learning.

In recent years, policymakers increasingly have recognized the importance of broadband connectivity for K-8 and high schools. The FCC now tracks broadband availability for those schools in its annual broadband progress report and the Universal Service schools and libraries e-rate program has helped increase the availability of broadband in K-8 and high schools in rural as well as urban areas.

It’s good to see that some states also are beginning to recognize the importance of broadband in rural higher education as well.

As the Inside Higher Ed blog post notes, communities that lack local colleges and universities also often lag in economic development. Growing up in a higher education desert “not only makes it harder to attend college, but also means there are fewer opportunities for upward mobility in your hometown even if you do graduate,” the author notes.

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