College in an education desert

When it comes to higher education, geographic isolation and inadequate internet access have left millions of Americans at a disadvantage. Here’s what one high school is doing about it.

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Story by Hannah Kearse | Staff Writer

STUDENTS pour into the halls of Thompson Falls High School every 45 minutes, seven times a day, five days a week. Through a gauntlet of blue lockers, slow streams of teenagers flow in opposite directions as they navigate toward class. Several of these students find their way to the Learning Center, the only place in town where high-speed internet is reliable enough to take online courses.

Inside, Erik Melendez, a senior, balances a pile of loose papers on his lap as he hunches over a computer keyboard. Melendez rests a Birkenstock sandal and wool-covered foot on one knee, which bounces up and down as he considers his prospects. He says his parents expect him to go to college, and he wants to major in comparative literature, preferably in New York City. 

Thompson Falls, located in Sanders County, Montana, is a long way from NYC. It is a small town tucked into a narrow valley between the Cabinet and Coeur d’Alene mountains. There are at least a dozen churches, and the nearest Starbucks is 90 miles away. The Clark Fork River flows gently by, and alfalfa fields cover patches of undeveloped land. A two-lane highway, MT 200, runs right through downtown, where the traffic slows to a trickle and the 1,400 residents know it as Main Street.

For all its small-town charm, one thing Thompson Falls lacks is a college. It is about a two-hour drive on a winding, mountain highway to the nearest institutions of higher education. This makes it too far to commute for students who want to study close to family and community, which is especially important for nontraditional students, those who are older, have children or work full-time.

This makes Thompson Falls part of something you’ve probably never heard of: an education desert. According to 2016 research from The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, 38 percent of first-time, full-time freshman choose to attend a college within a 50-minute drive from their home, a statistic that has held true for almost four decades. Areas more than an hour drive from a public college or university are considered physical education deserts, because it puts those people who want a post-secondary education, but can’t commute or move, at a distinct disadvantage.

According to an analysis by The Chronicle for Higher Education, more than 11 million adults in the United States live more than a 60-minute drive from a college, mostly in rural parts of the country and in the West. Not surprisingly, the states with the greatest percentage of adults living in education deserts are Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana. This means one in three Montanans, about 350,000 people, live too far from a college or university to easily commute.

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Sixteen of those people are the Thompson Falls High School students enrolled in the Running Start Program, which allows Melendez and his fellow students to take up to two online college courses a semester through Flathead Valley Community College.

Melendez wants to study world literature but Thompson Falls High School doesn’t offer it, so he turns to online courses to fill the gap. “That’s what’s exciting for me,” he said. “Just learning about things that I’m really passionate about, plus the freedom that comes with it. I’m just tired of being restrained all the time.”

But this is a relatively new option for Thompson Falls High School students, one that millions of Americans don’t have.

While the geographical layout of post-secondary institutions has changed little in four decades, technological improvements—namely computers and high-speed internet—have altered the impact of education deserts. Opportunities to take courses online allow students who live too far from a college to begin the long journey toward earning a degree. High-speed internet enables students to video chat with distant classmates and teachers and to stream instructional videos.

But this digital panacea is not available everywhere. Surprisingly, the U.S. is ranked only tenth among developed nations in its broadband coverage, and lack of access to online learning opportunities continues to impact rural and impoverished inner-city communities. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in 2018, 24 million Americans lacked access to broadband internet at home (which the FCC defines as 25 megabits per second or faster). Millions more rely on slower and less reliable DSL services.

The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, looked at how slow internet speeds impact education deserts. Researchers Victoria Rosenboom and Kristin Blagg mapped those places without access to internet speeds of 25 MBps against physical education deserts. They found that about 3.1 million Americans live in both a physical and online education desert, limiting their options and access to the technological and educational advantages that larger communities thrive on.

In Montana, 290,000 people live in an online education desert, mostly in small towns in the Northern Rocky Mountains and large swaths of prairie in the eastern part of the state. Thompson Falls is the 297th most connected town in Montana, with an average download speed of just 4.28 MBps—a whopping 852 percent slower than the national average.

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In 2000, the Thompson Falls Public Library was the first place in town to get internet, and it was dial-up. It now has two DSL lines at 15 MBps each, but internet speed is often slow and inconsistent, even though it costs $400 a month. Library Director Lynn Kersten still jokes about the conversations she’s had with business owners about internet speed. When speeds drop to a frustrating crawl on Main Street, work stops and people step out of their businesses to check in with each other.

The high school, though, is in the fast lane, thanks to the hard work of Doree Thilmony. For the past seven years, Thilmony, Thompson Falls High School’s technological coordinator and science teacher, has applied for grants from the FCC to improve the school’s internet infrastructure. The U.S. government invests $10 billion a year on subsidies for broadband infrastructure. E-rate, an FCC program, provides grants to eligible schools and libraries across the country. Thilmony has brought about $250,000 to the school over the years, and it now has fiber optic cables and an internet speed of 100 MBps for about 50 users at once.

“I am a personal user and there is no way I could get that speed without paying quite a bit of money,” said Thilmony. “E-rate is definitely a program that helps us give the type of quality to our students.”

Faster internet speeds allowed Thilmony’s science class to take tests online this year for the first time. The program does all the grading, which saves her time. There’s an option to submit homework assignments as well, but Thilmony doesn’t use it because some students don’t have computers and most don’t have reliable internet at home.

“I told my [online] teacher about my situation,” Melendez said. “A lot of the time I feel like they don’t believe me. I’m not trying to get out of doing my work. I enjoy doing it. It’s just circumstances are against me sometimes.”

The rest of Thompson Falls didn’t qualify for a federal grant, which leaves older, nontraditional students at a disadvantage. Online courses just don’t work if you don’t have ready access to high-speed internet, and DSL and satellite just won’t cut it. “If you were talking about a local community member who wanted to take classes,” said Jodi Morgan, the high school’s counselor. “I would say that’s where there is a need in the community. If you’re older, a nontraditional student, then you’re kind of on your own to find internet access.”

Morgan estimates 20 to 30 percent of the high school students considered attending college when she first started 10 years ago. Last year, almost 80 percent of the graduating class left Thompson Falls to attend two and four-year colleges. But there are still plenty of Thompson Falls residents who would be unable to move to the Big City for college.