To Climb Without a Ladder

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, April 27, 2020

Digital Beat

To Climb Without a Ladder

Briana Hayes

As a result of COVID-19, over 300,000 University System of Georgia students have returned home to finish their courses online. Now more than ever, I have realized the great digital divide in our state, and because of it, high-achieving students, particularly in rural Georgia, are suffering immensely. Consider the story of Landon Clark, a Goldwater Scholar and student at the University of Georgia (UGA):


I had to move back home in southwest Georgia, where my Wi-Fi is extremely bad and only one company offers cellular data services where I live. Because of this, my Internet often cuts in and out. When I try to watch a lecture video, it constantly buffers. To compensate for this, I have to download the videos, but I am finding that each video takes 6-8 hours to download onto my computer. I am afraid I will have to withdraw from classes that I am physically not able to complete due to being unable to attend lectures, take quizzes/tests, and watch any sort of online video. I live in Leesburg, Georgia, a town of two stoplights and less than 3,000 people. Adjacent to my city is Albany, Georgia, which currently has the highest deaths per capita in the United States. I am currently triple majoring in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Genetics, and Biology. I currently have a 4.0 and was recently named a 2020 Goldwater Scholar, the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering in America. However, I need to opt for the pass-fail system in order to not be overwhelmed or overly stressed. The USG is not "aiming to a higher standard" by refusing pass/fail. In fact, it is doing the opposite. The USG is disadvantaging students living in rural Georgia who are effectively unable to complete their online classes due to poor Internet, favoring those from urbanized areas who have quality Internet access.

In my research at the University of Georgia, my instructor challenges me to use the anti-deficit perspective while analyzing disparities among rural students. Using this perspective, we place less of our focus on the failures of students and more of our focus on the failures of the systems that influence them.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold across our state, it is imperative that we all seek to use the anti-deficit perspective for the sake of students. While 1.6 million Georgians do not have reliable access to the Internet and funding for rural broadband is still based upon flawed mapping by the Federal Communications Commission, we must realize that every student does not have the means to succeed academically.

The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia stated that it would continue using letter grading to assess students’ performance this semester while over 150 colleges and universities around the country—including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale— have implemented an opt-in pass/fail grading policy. The opt-in pass/fail system gives students the choice of receiving a “pass” for a class rather than a letter grade. The pass neither helps nor hurts a student’s GPA, while a “fail” does have repercussions. The institutions that have implemented this policy understand that letter grading is now a measure of means rather than ability.

If Landon Clark were to be in an environment conducive to learning with reliable Internet access, he would, without a doubt, be excelling in his classes as demonstrated by his GPA. Moreover, if the Board of Regents does not reform its grading policy and Landon loses his perfect GPA this semester, it will not be because he failed at being an excellent student. 

It will be because a system failed him.

A system that instructs students to “reach higher” without ensuring all students have sufficient access to the necessary resources is utterly broken. It is analogous to telling students to climb without offering a ladder first. 

Now, I personally believe that there is beauty and opportunity in every circumstance, no matter how bleak. Imagine if we used Landon’s story as a catalyst for change to once and for all lessen the digital divide by expanding broadband access. Imagine if the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia worked closely with legislators to bring about this change in order to ensure every students’ success. Imagine if we used this opportunity to make our society more equitable and equal for all people.

Now is a critical moment for our state. Our failure to act could have detrimental consequences, and I fear that it will only worsen disparities, especially in rural areas. We have a choice. Will we create a system that sets Georgians up for success, or will we continue to allow privilege to perpetuate inequity, especially in the rural parts of our state?

To learn more about USG Students for Grade Reform, please visit or follow the group on Facebook and Instagram at USG Students 4 Grade Reform and on Twitter @gradereform4usg. Members of the University System of Georgia community may also sign the petition in favor of an opt-in pass/fail grading system at

A native of Baxley, Georgia, Briana Hayes is a third-year student at the University of Georgia. She is health promotion major and plans on attending law school after graduating. Her academic honors include becoming a Presidential Leadership Scholar, an Honors Program Student, and a Dean William Tate Honor Society Inductee. She held the title of Miss University of Georgia in 2019.

Among her leadership roles at UGA, Briana has founded an organization for rural students called RISE. She has also been involved with campus community service groups such as UGArden, Campus Kitchen, and Extra Special People.

Briana is one of the many organizers for the group, USG Students for Grade Reform, through which is advocating for equitable grading for University System of Georgia students in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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