Gaps in Broadband Access: Lagging Internet Contributes to Lagging Test Scores, Leaving Rural Students Behind

Poor and No Internet Access Disadvantages Students, Including Lower Grades, Fewer Digital Skills, Lower SAT Scores, and Reduced Interest in Attending University

Rural middle and high school students are more likely to have slow Internet connections or limited access from home and to fall behind in homework, grades, digital skills, and standardized test scores, according to a groundbreaking report from Michigan State University’s Quello Center. The educational setbacks can have significant impacts on college admissions, academic success, and career opportunities.

Developed and carried out in partnership with Merit Network and 15 Michigan school districts, the report “Broadband and Student Performance Gaps” underscores the need for improved infrastructure in rural communities. The report covers schools in Mecosta County, St. Clair County, and in the eastern region of the Upper Peninsula, spanning from the Tahquamenon area to St. Ignace and Sault Ste. Marie.

“We were surprised with how robust the findings were,” said Quello Center Associate Director for Research Keith Hampton, Ph.D., who is a professor in MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. “Students without Internet access and those who depend on a cell phone for their only access are half a grade point below those with fast access. This gap has ripple effects that may last an entire life.”

Revealing Impacts on Michigan Students

This study, a first in Michigan and the United States, breaks new ground through the use of multiple data sources, and the scope and impact of its findings. In collaboration with community partners, they worked on a team that included Hampton, Quello Center Assistant Director Laleah Fernandez, Ph.D., Ph.D. student Craig Robertson, as well as Professor and Quello Center Director Johannes M. Bauer, Ph.D.

To conduct the study, the Quello Center researchers collected and analyzed three unique sets of data on student Internet access and academic performance. They surveyed 3,258 students in grades 8-11 through in-class, pen-and-paper surveys in 21 schools across Michigan, looked at student PSAT and SAT scores, and home Internet speed tests. All data were fully de-identified.

The survey which was administered in 173 classrooms included questions that covered everything from students’ online activities, homework completion, subject grades, digital skills, media use, to their goals, experiences and attitudes, and career interests.

Results show that the most rural and socioeconomically disadvantaged students are least likely to have broadband Internet access at home. Only 47 percent of students who live in rural areas have high-speed Internet access, compared to 77 percent of those in suburban areas. Of those who do not have home access, 36 percent live in a home with no computer and 58 percent live on a farm or other rural setting. Students with no high-speed Internet access at home are also less likely to plan to attend a college or university. On the other hand, students with Internet access have substantially higher digital skills, and these skills are a strong predictor of performance on pen-and-paper standardized tests, such as the SAT, PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9. Read the full report.

“Digital skills are related to proficiency in a range of domains beyond simple technology use, including language and computation. Better home Internet access contributes to diverse technology use and higher digital skills,” said Hampton.

The results show that students who rely on a cell phone only, or have no home Internet access, had a gap in skills that was similar to the gap in digital skill between 8th and 11th grade students.

“We found that students with even modestly lower digital skills perform a lot worse on the SATs,” said Hampton. “We measured digital skills on a scale from 0 to 64. The average score was around a 30, but a student who performs modestly lower in digital skills (13 points or one standard deviation) scores about 7 percentiles lower nationally on the SATs. That is true for standardized test scores across all grades, not just the SAT.”

In the survey, 82% of middle and high school students said that they sometimes or often receive homework that requires Internet access.

The report found that students who rely on a cell phone for Internet access at home, those with no access and those with slower access are less likely to collaborate or seek academic support outside of school from their peers and teachers. It also takes longer for students to complete their homework assignments, and these students are more likely to leave homework incomplete if they do not have home Internet access.

Lagging Internet Affects All Students

There are a variety of reasons as to why students might not be as successful in school.

The report found that the gaps in student performance related to home Internet access exist regardless of differences in socioeconomic status, such as student race and ethnicity, family income or parental education.

“Much of the focus has been on attributing differences in student outcomes to sociodemographic factors, such as household income or parent education levels, and some argue that the same reasons explain why people do not have Internet access,” Bauer said. “The reality is more complicated. In many rural areas, broadband Internet service simply can’t be provided due to the higher cost of delivering services. While poor and remote areas are both less likely to have access, lack of sufficient access alone is a big reason why some children do worse in school than others.”

The report found that the gaps in student performance due to no access, dependence on a cell phone for access, or slow home Internet access exist regardless of differences in socioeconomic status, such as student race and ethnicity, family income, or parental education. 

“The study is unique, in that we have students who come from both high and low income families who are without Internet access, not because they can’t afford it or because their parents’ don’t see value in it, but because it’s just not available to them,” said Hampton. By working with schools in areas where connectivity was often absent due to geography, researchers built these considerations into the study. “It turns out that deficiencies in student outcomes are tied to both Internet access and socioeconomic issues.”

In addition, students who could get Internet access on their cell phone struggled to utilize the resources available on the Internet, whether due to slow connectivity or caps on data use from local service providers.

“It is wrong to assume that since most have a smartphone, students have sufficient access,” said Bauer. “It turns out that this is not the case. Those who have only cell phone access perform as poorly as those who have no Internet access at all.”

A Gap with Lifelong Impacts

The impact of the Internet access gap has implications that go beyond lower grades and standardized test scores. These scores are part of the formula colleges use to grant admission to prospective students, and they may affect a student’s college and career path.

“In small town and rural America, one of the challenges is to keep up with the digitization of the economy,” said Hampton. He said students don’t learn all the necessary digital skills in the traditional classroom. “That kind of knowledge is important.”

Digital skills serve a key role in many sectors of the economy, whether that means using digital devices, accessing communication applications, building an online presence, or using e-commerce to sell and ship products to distant customers.

“Those who have better broadband access at home also have higher digital skills overall,” said Hampton. “Those digital skills then position individuals better for lifelong careers. They are better positioned for post-secondary education and are more intent on entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers, which often pay higher salaries.”

In rural areas, gaps in broadband access could lead to economic impacts on entire communities.

“We know that there is a serious gap between what official government statistics tell us about availability of rural broadband and what the actual experience is on the ground,” said Bauer. “Those statistics guide programs to expand networks. There are ripple effects and there are repercussions that are further disadvantaging those who have poor access.”

“The lower interest in post-secondary education or STEM careers decreases lifelong income opportunities and the ability to find jobs in occupations where future demand is high,” said Bauer. “Compared to communities with fast Internet access, those with poor broadband connectivity will experience fewer benefits from the digital transformation.”

For more information, visit:

By Melissa Priebe

Four Things Your School District Needs to Know

Download the Quello Center Report