Midwest A Victim Of 'Rural Brain Drain'

Small towns across the country are dying off, and college students are partly to blame.
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Small towns across the country are dying off, and college students are partly to blame.

It's called the "rural brain drain," where college-educated young people leave their small towns and head toward urban areas. This is issue is most prevalent in Midwest and Great Plains states, as U.S. Department of Agriculture data illustrates an unprecedented exodus of young people out of rural towns.

As global forces continue to drive traditional manufacturing and other businesses out of small towns, there is a broader shift toward urbanization. In fact, for the first time in U.S. history, more people live in urban areas than nonurban. Adding to this exodus are college-educated people, contributing to what certain analysts have found is a direct correlation between the amount of college-educated people in a county and its unemployment rates.

Maria Kefalas, a sociologist and professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, co-authored a book that addresses this very issue. Hollowing Out the Middle outlines the grave situation brewing in Middle America -- paying particularly close attention to one town in rural Iowa -- and, in the end, offers solutions to bring young people back to small towns.

She said this is an issue that has been on the minds of Midwest politicians for years, failing to come up with a viable way of convincing educated people to stay in the region. However, as the years have gone on, those who live in rural areas now find themselves without the resources, tax base or professionals that it takes to sustain a community.

"This is a problem in a close, industrial economy where you need doctors, engineers, computer scientists to keep a regional economy going and sustained," Kefalas said. "What's happening in many rural areas is there are too many people with high school diplomas who are trying to get jobs in a blue collar economy that's really very vulnerable."

Kefalas, and co-author Patrick J. Carr, spent a good deal of time in one community in the Midwest -- Ellis, Iowa. From there, the authors found many of the problems facing not only the town, but also the broader region. Kefalas said the University of Iowa exports more of its graduates than any other Big 10 schools. Furthermore, she said only West Virginia loses more of its college graduates every year.

"As these factories close and as these factory jobs go away, rather than saying we're doomed, it's much better to take a proactive stand and retooling high school graduates for this new system," she said.

One of the solutions, Kefalas said, is to rethink higher education. She suggests putting more resources into other post-high school education that teach skills necessary for a new local economy. For example, instead of encouraging young people to go to medical school, suggest going to school to become a physician's assistant to close the gap of medical professionals in rural areas. Community colleges play a vital role in this process, Kefalas said.

Some community colleges have developed sustainable energy programs that train students for the new green economy -- wind, biofuels and biomass. These programs can be seen all over the country, such as the biotechnology program at Indian Hill Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. There are also new opportunities with agriculture, as the farming as an industry continues to develop.

"You read about these Ivy-educated kids coming and working on farms -- if I meet one kid from Yale who's been working on an organic farm -- it's kind of surreal," she joked. "But I think people are pretty interested in green technologies and a lot of ways rural America can be ground zero for that."

It still remains difficult to keep young people in small towns considering that rural workers make 80 to 85 percent of what metropolitan workers make, Kefalas said. Instead of small towns evacuating its best and brightest, they should think creatively and let go of a mid-twentieth century view of rural America, she continued.

"We don't want young people to abort their dreams to stay in rural America," she said. Later adding, "What we're saying is you have to stop assuming that the best kids are going to leave and the kids who aren't so good are going to stay and that [the towns] will somehow be OK."

Small towns are facing many more issues outside of the brain drain, like the loss of manufacturing jobs, outdated infrastructure, staggering unemployment, and the inability of small businesses to receive bank loans. But looking at the rural brain drain, Kefalas said it starts with college students.

"Of course kids are going to leave, we don't want them to stop leaving," she said. "But we need to invest in the kids who stay, and make it more tempting for the kids who are thinking of leaving."

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