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Why Online Education Is Essential for Rural Students

Mar 2, 2021

Going to college is a major decision, but getting to campus can pose logistical challenges for students in rural communities. Compounding their distance from brick-and-mortar campuses: They might also be without reliable access to the internet and other resources.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, rural students are less likely to attend college—and even less likely as students get older. Just 7.5 percent of 25-to-29-year-olds from rural areas enrolled in undergraduate programs in 2015, compared to more than 10.2 percent of students who lived in cities and 10.7 percent of urban and suburban students. The numbers were even lower for graduate students: just 2.5 percent of rural 25-to-29-year-olds enrolled in graduate programs, compared to 7.2 percent of their urban peers.

The need to earn a degree quickly.

While the low college enrollment rate has a lot to do with the different opportunities and career trajectories in rural areas, many rural students don't have the same access to college that urban and suburban students do. There aren't as many colleges in rural areas, and many residents of these areas are too busy with their jobs to pursue a degree.

This was the case for Robert Bice. In 2015, Bice was a chemistry teacher at a high school in Rome, Georgia. His plate was full: he and his wife had two small boys, and he was coaching, too. Bice had originally gone to school to be a physician; he'd taken a premed course of study in undergrad and had attended medical school before becoming a teacher.

He'd been looking into grad schools when he came across a table for Western Governors University during the Georgia Science Teachers Association's annual convention. He was attracted to the idea of studying at his own pace and enrolled in a program to pursue his master's degree in science education.

Because Bice had been a premed student, he already knew what his early chemistry courses were teaching—and WGU's competency-based model meant he could quickly move forward.

"I was able to fly through those courses," he says.

Once he completed the chemistry courses, he knew he'd be able to finish his degree early. He started the program in May and finished by Halloween.

Learning while working full-time.

In 2017, Brittani Michel was working as a nurse coordinator for a surgeon in St. Louis. She enjoyed her job, but she was salaried and putting in a lot of hours, staying late and coming in on weekends. And her home in rural Beaufort, Missouri, was an hour away.

She wanted to expand her career options in nursing—but to do that, she knew she had to go back to school.

Time, however, was an obstacle.

"I was working full-time, and I knew I would need the flexibility of an online degree program in order to graduate in a timely manner," says Michel, who earned her master's degree in management and leadership in February 2019.

The challenges of studying in a rural area.

Even with the convenience of online courses, Michel had to adapt her work life to accommodate her studies. She left her coordinator job and became a nurse in an operating room, giving her more consistent hours and weekends and holidays off to study.

Michel still faced challenges. Her commute remained long (although she made the best of it and scheduled calls with her mentor during her drives), and sagging internet speeds made completing coursework at home difficult.

WGU is working to help more students gain internet access by offering scholarships and working with political leaders to drive comprehensive solutions to the challenge, but students like Michel are still finding ways to get their studies done. 

"Living in a rural community, there are not many options for internet," she said. "We only have the option currently for satellite internet, which is not fast and cuts out frequently. I was unable to watch certain videos needed for my studies at home. I found myself going to the library on the weekends to work on courses and take my exams."

Bice ran into similar challenges. He spent four days a week working on his degree at a café in Rome, and his school let him take his exams in his classroom.

For Bice, having mentors was a big boon. In small rural communities, a teacher is usually the only content expert in the school system. For example, Bice is his town's lone chemistry teacher, and thus the go-to guy for the subject. Speaking with other chemistry experts was critical in his professional development.

Bice has since earned a doctorate remotely from another institution. He might even teach college students one day.

"I would love to get a job teaching undergraduates," he says.

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