Original article can be found at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
By Goldie Blumenstyk; January 8, 2020
Beyond studies, I was also reminded of a hands-on project that Northern Michigan University has undertaken to provide broadband services across the woodsy and lightly populated Upper Peninsula of the state, through its Educational Access Network. An outgrowth of the university’s initial efforts to provide bandwidth services to the two-thirds of its students who live off campus, the network now serves more than 100 communities — many of them towns of 100 to 300 residents — and a coverage area of more than 16,000 square miles. The university did it by working with the Federal Communications Commission to license additional slices of the air-wave spectrum dedicated for educational use, and then offer the services at prices as low as about $20 a month.
The bargain rates come with a catch: All subscribers must take at least one educational offering a year from the university — courses that could include traditional academic classes offered online or shorter specialized modules like “Time Management for Small Business.”
“Our goal, quite frankly, is to get you hooked,” said Fritz Erickson, the university’s president. “We don’t define ourselves as an internet-service provider. We define ourselves as an educational-service provider.” (Even so, over the past 18 months the university has learned a thing or two about building cellphone towers and how to equip the top of a mine shaft and a lighthouse in the middle of Lake Superior with telecom equipment.)
Northern Michigan leaders hope that, with this broadband service, people in the region reluctant to attend college will become more comfortable with the institution and eventually enroll. The network also hires current students to work in sales and customer-support positions, giving them not just a paycheck but some useful work experience too.
Why don’t more colleges do that? Good question. (My editor asked me that, too.) One reason is that building a network takes upfront investment. Northern Michigan has spent about $9 million so far, with some of the money coming from a $6.5-million loan from a state economic-development agency.
Perhaps more to the point, telecom standards change all the time, so it can be challenging and expensive for organizations like a university to keep current with the ever-changing technology. I guess that’s one reason more than 1,000 schools and libraries, and even a few colleges now contract with a company called Kajeet, which works with the major wireless companies, to provide broadband to students. Kajeet in turn provides mobile hotspots and Wi-Fi-equipped school buses that give students high-speed internet connections for their school work. (Its filtering technology allows its customers to limit access to sites like Netflix or Facebook.)
I’m especially intrigued by the potential for using school buses as Wi-Fi sources because that not only provides internet access to students on their way to and from school, but also creates the potential for broader access in communities where school boards can decide to strategically park their buses in neighborhoods overnight to keep the Wi-Fi services running.
Kajeet isn’t a major player in higher education, but the company says some institutions, including Auburn University, have begun to use its service to provide broadband to rural high-school students. Readers also connected me with a high-school counselor in rural Virginia who told me that mobile hotspots have been especially useful as the low-income students in her Gear Up program worked on their college applications this school year.
Several colleges are also focusing more holistically on rural students. In some instances, their interest is tied directly to regional agricultural needs and colleges’ plans to develop academic and outreach programs designed to help farmers adapt to new technologies. “A lot of farm workers are going to have to become farm technicians” is how Douglas Steele, vice president for food, agriculture, and natural resources at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, put it.
Elsewhere, the focus is broader. Sheila Martin, the association’s vice president for economic development and community engagement, told me that colleges hadn’t historically thought of rural students as an “underrepresented” group on their campus deserving of special attention. Increasingly, though, she’s hearing institutions sound that theme.
Should college better understand some common characteristics of such students? Is there even an agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a rural student? Right now, answers to many of those questions are murky. For example, colleges may have a sense that families of rural students could be reluctant for them to enroll far from home. But how does that view play out in admissions and retention? “We’d like to know more,” Martin told me. In fact, a handful of APLU members have already begun to work together to explore the ramifications of identifying rural students as a particular student demographic.
North Carolina State University isn’t waiting. Spurred in part by a state-level push to enroll more rural students that began in 2016, the institution, located in Raleigh, has developed a series of programs aimed especially at the minority of its students who don’t hail from metropolitan regions. Among these: a “small-town student” orientation and special tutoring and support services for students whose high schools lacked some key academic resources. “They need a little bit of additional help when they get here,” said Leslie Boney, director of the university’s Institute for Emerging Issues.
Three years ago, N.C. State also created Rural Works! It’s an internship that places students in eight-week paid posts during the summer, so they can see opportunities for work in rural communities. The university plans to involve 50 students this summer, most of them from rural communities themselves. If it lands additional funding, Boney hopes to expand the program to include more government and nonprofit employers too.
To me all this, plus the many references I’m seeing to other rural initiatives, suggests that the rural-student issue is gaining momentum. But the rhetoric can often outweigh the reality. For example, as APLU’s Martin told me, colleges may talk about wanting to recruit more rural students, but the return on their recruiting dollar “might not be that high.” Once they realize that, will their enthusiasm wane? That’s another rural-student question whose answer may be a bit murky.
Are you going to the annual meeting this month of the Association of American Colleges & Universities? Please join me, along with my colleagues Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano, from The Chronicle's Teaching newsletter, for a happy-hour meet-up on Thursday, January 23, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. We’ll be in the lobby bar of the conference hotel, the Marriott Marquis. We look forward to schmoozing with you — and hearing your ideas and feedback for our newsletters, The Edge and Teaching. Not going but know someone who will be? Please let them know.
Yup, we’ll be back again this year for the sixth edition of this fun pitchfest. Got a new company, a new organization, or even just a good idea to improve higher education? Attending SXSW EDU? Please consider taking the plunge as one of our Shark Tank contestants, on Tuesday, March 10, from 3 to 4 pm, in Austin, Tex.
If you’re looking for investment capital, this isn’t for you; that’s still not in my budget. But based on past experience, you’ll find it a spirited way to highlight new thinking and action on issues like student debt, teaching quality, study abroad, and pathways to careers, to name just a few of the themes that have come our way. And while I don’t claim any credit, it’s been fun to see how some of our past contestants’ ventures have evolved and taken off.
This year the “sharks” will again include me and Paul Freedman, chief executive and co-founder of Entangled Group; we will be joined by a newcomer, Charles (Chuck) Ambrose, chief executive of KnowledgeWorks and a former president of the University of Central Missouri, My colleague Scott Carlson will return, too, as MC, to keep the contestants and sharks in line.
Interested? Please send a short description of your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at email@example.com. If you have been been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, or sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.
Get Started with Kajeet!