Rural Brain Drain or Gain?

by Erin Beck
September 4, 2015

Middle America has long been known for its “rural brain drain” crisis: the twentieth century migration of talented and skilled young people leaving rural communities in pursuit of higher education and careers.

It’s true that rural areas have seen a downtrend in population during the last 60 years, leaving some counties with half their 1950 populations. Yet many are surviving and even thriving.

Researcher Ben Winchester, from the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, has coined the term “brain gain” to describe the trend he’s noticed in rural areas.

While rural communities tend to lose young people who leave for college and employment opportunities, those same communities are also seeing a surge of incoming adults ages 30-49. Armed with college degrees and valuable job experience, these people are introducing new ideas and energy into what would otherwise be dying communities.

Redefining the Trend

In the twenty-first century, rural communities aren’t as remote as they used to be. Careers are no longer entirely dependent on location thanks to the evolution of the digital age. Social media and Skype allow people to remain connected.

For the people who are returning or migrating to rural areas, jobs aren’t the top priority. People are fueling the brain gain in their quest for a better quality of life. And that includes affordable housing, outdoor recreation, quality schools for their children, a simpler pace in life and a sense of safety and security.

Winchester’s research shows this trend has been occurring since 1970 without concentrated recruitment from rural communities. Winchester believes that, with a targeted demographic migrating out of urban populations, rural areas need to capitalize on this voluntary shift to invigorate communities.

The rural brain drain isn’t the end of rural America. While communities can’t prevent young people from leaving to pursue different careers, they can draw on the opportunities for a different demographic to bring talent back into their communities.