By Danika McClure
America’s rural cities have been shrinking over the past few decades, both in population size, and in college educated workforce, as educated students are choosing to abandon their rural homes after graduating, opting instead to move to cityscapes and urban areas.
Goutham Menon, who directs the Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno attributes this problem to what he calls a “Brain Drain”, in which students from rural communities attend college, but upon completing their degrees don’t return to the rural towns they grew up in. This leaves a dearth of qualified workers in areas that may need those professionals the most.
Outward migration from small towns in the U.S. has been increasing over the past few years, especially for students between the ages of 20-29. This means that young people’s most productive years are spent in new cities, and not spent building their former communities up, which is especially problematic–given the ways that millennials have changed and invigorated the workplace.
Although this trend is troubling and seems to be unchanging overall, recent studies note that graduates from rural communities would often prefer to stay in those communities. Many prefer the open spaces, sense of community, and pace of life that comes with living in a rural area. But unemployment in rural areas along with economic stagnation force many students to leave and advance their careers elsewhere.
Part of the problem lies in the way that rural education is funded. Today, federal funding for rural schools is even lower than it was in 2010, and has remained stagnant since 2013. Beyond that though, ‘brain drain’ of rural areas has been a problem for nearly five decades, argues Patrick Carr, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, whose expertise lies in the hollowing out of rural American towns.
This has disastrous consequences for rural public schools, whose technology is far behind those of their urban counterparts. In some cases, rural elementary schools have one dial-up modem for an entire school.
“In terms of rural economic development, it’s really important for communities to identify the talent of the people that live in rural communities and figure out how to leverage those talents,”says John Hill, president of NREA and a clinical professor in the College of Education at Purdue University. Furthermore, students need to have the economic opportunities available once they graduate from college.
It’s a major part of what Carr addresses in his book, Hollowing Out the Middle, where he argues that rural towns will have to adapt to a new way of thinking about education.
“How should they do this? First, by changing their attitudes toward high-school graduate,” Carr writes. “Small towns traditionally put all their efforts behind the smart students, pushing them out to four-year universities in cities, where they are much more likely to succeed and, unfortunately for the town, much more likely to stay. Students who are less accomplished or driven are given little support, but they are also the ones who are most likely to remain in their small towns post-graduation.”
In order to help those students succeed, rural students need to be better trained in areas that will benefit the global economy, as well as the communities they grew up in. Furthermore, cities may need to more heavily invest in technology to attract young graduates.
“There are people that are going to leave, and I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to stop them from leaving,” Carr’s coauthor Maria J. Kefalas tells Newsweek. “But there are people with young families or who tried urban living and wanted to opt out and try something else, who could be lured to the region…thinking, ‘This is great. I can raise my kids, I can buy a gigantic house. And as long as I have the digital infrastructure, I can telecommute. I can have a very good quality of life.’”
By investing in their own students, as well as prioritizing technological infrastructure, rural towns can continue to push forward in a digital, more educated world.
Danika McClure is a writer and musician from the northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. You can follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl