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Plug the rural brain drain

Winter is a great time to curl up with a good book. This past year, individuals in 15 rural South Dakota communities have been focused on the same page.

These South Dakota communities are part of the Great Community Book Read. Their assigned book, Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, is a study of graduates of a small Iowa high school. The effort is coordinated by South Dakota Extension.

As the parent of two such graduates and a former school board member, I decided to read it and share my perspective with Successful Farming readers. (If you'd like to form a virtual book club on, let me know!)

Authors Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas identify four types of graduates:

1. The Achievers: Those who are programmed to leave the community.

2. The Seekers: Those who want to see the world and get out of town.

3. The Stayers: Those who remain, forego postsecondary education, and find limited job options.

4. The Returners: Those who earn postsecondary education, develop careers, and return to raise a family.

High school graduates leaving their rural communities isn't a new trend. Young people have been rural America's most valuable export for four decades.

The stakes are even higher today with the loss of solid rural manufacturing jobs. The premise of this book is that schools and communities invest most of their resources in Achievers and Seekers, and shortchange the Stayers and the Returners, who come back with some postsecondary education.

Reading and discussing the book was only the first step for the South Dakota communities. Participants brainstormed strategies to address the problem, and here are the initial steps that 10 communities took:

● Armour organized a book read for school board members/administrators.

● De Smet created an organization to support/attract Returners and developed incentives/resources for entrepreneurs.

● Gregory is working on scholarships for technical education for Stayers and bringing technical training to town for them.

● Iroquois started a community newsletter and developed a skills and interest inventory of residents.

● Montrose developed marketing materials with a focus on the Returners.

● Scotland held a meeting with Stayers to determine their interests.

● Tripp explored a mentoring program.

● Volga created a Facebook page to reach out to potential Returners and explored creation of an adult night school.

● Wagner organized a monthly book club to discuss nonfiction, community issue-based books, and opened a high school skills lab for adult Stayers.

● Webster worked with existing event planners to add activities for Returners.

In Gregory, a local manufacturer has agreed to bring in its welding instructors from an urban site to conduct training during off-hours. “They'd get to see the workplace, become certified without ever leaving, and be mentored by employees,” says Dave Olson, SDSU Extension.

Wagner raised $9,000 to bring Donna Beegle, author of See Poverty, Be the Difference, to conduct workshops for 720 teachers in nearby communities.

Recruiting the future

Young people are a natural resource, and new conservation efforts are vital. Small towns are great at recognizing and nurturing talented kids. (The “Blue Ribbon School” story at right offers a superb example.)

We also need to take a critical look at what more can be done to retain youth. This book argues that any effort to plug the rural brain drain and to rebuild small towns must reallocate the investment between the youth unlikely to return and those likely to remain.

Partnerships between high schools and community colleges to offer college credits during high school can be a key strategy. Schools that do whatever it takes to hang onto their vo ag and industrial arts programs are also on the right track.

An estimated 37 million Americans have some college credit but no degree. Western Governors University is a nonprofit online school offering degrees in information technology, teaching, business, and health care.

Stayers and youth who prefer rural areas are an untapped resource. It's time to develop, encourage, and invest in them.

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