The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently announced plans for a $1.5 billion project that will expand broadband access to thousands of underserved areas in the U.S., including to nearly 34,000 rural homes and businesses in Texas. As part of the Connect America Fund, broadband providers in the Lone Star State will receive $76.7 million in funding over the next 10 years to provide these services to 89 Texas counties, from the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle.
This effort by the FCC is a sign of progress. However, according to a report by Connected Nation, “Rural Broadband: A Texas Tour,” 1.8 million Texans, most of them in rural areas, don’t have high-speed internet access — and the FCC initiative is only estimated to reach a small percentage of Texans who urgently need broadband access.
As U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said about access to broadband, “It’s an issue of safety, of education and of health for rural Texans.”
When it comes to education, rural areas tend to be most affected by teacher shortages and limited access to four-year institutions.
At WGU Texas, 17% of our students are from rural areas. While we want to serve more rural residents, we are limited in our ability to do so until broadband internet is expanded to all corners of the state. With the expansion of broadband access to these areas, we can offer a practical, convenient and cost-effective solution via online education, and a pathway to higher educational attainment.
Since World War II, higher education has been the surest pathway to opportunity and social mobility in the United States. And now, America’s future relies more heavily than ever on the ability of our higher education institutions to produce the talented, skilled workforce necessary to compete in the global economy. To succeed, however, we must draw on the talent of people from all incomes, backgrounds and communities across the state.
At WGU Texas, our average student age is 37; 74% of our students work full-time while enrolled in our programs, and more than 70% of our students are part of at least one underserved population. We have exceled at creating flexible, personalized learning experiences that lead to great outcomes through our unique online, competency-based programs that address key workforce needs. We are proud of our diverse student population that includes underserved populations, first generation and low-income students.
At WGU Texas, we have seen firsthand that improving the quality of and access to education increases opportunity for those who complete our programs. But we can’t accomplish this alone: We need help from partners in communities. Our goal in advocating for the expansion of broadband access is to improve higher education attainment opportunities, and in turn, economic opportunities for Texans through the following strategies:
1. Making educational attainment as affordable as possible
According to The 101: Higher Ed Poll of Texas, cost and debt are two of the primary reasons Texans do not want to pursue higher education. At WGU, our annual tuition and fees are nearly half the national average and a WGU degree (average cost for a bachelor’s is $16,500) continues to prove a good investment for our graduates, most of whom see positive returns on their investments within two to three years. On average, our graduates increase their pre-enrollment income by $12,600 within two years of graduation and by $18,400 within four years.
2. Filling the gaps in high-demand fields
With more than 60 bachelors and masters degrees in business, IT, teacher education and healthcare, we are educating and training Texans to fill the gaps in those high-demand fields. Since 2011, we have awarded degrees to more than 12,500 Texans who are helping to meet workforce needs in industries including teaching, nursing, technology and community services.
3. Increasing accessibility by solving the college-readiness gap
In May, WGU launched the WGU Academy, an independent operating unit established to help solve the growing college-readiness gap. WGU Academy’s courses and programs are providing aspiring students with an affordable, low-risk on-ramp that prepares them for college success, either at WGU or other institutions.
At WGU Texas, we believe in education without boundaries, and we believe in doing our part to remove barriers to any Texans seeking to fulfill their potential. Please join us in calling for expanded broadband access for rural Texas. Together, we can create a new gateway to opportunity for Texas families and communities.
Dr. Steven E. Johnson is the chancellor of WGU Texas, a state-endorsed, nonprofit, accredited university launched in August 2011 to expand access to affordable, high-quality educational opportunities for Texans.