Rural Talent Attraction: Who Comes Home?

For many rural regions, brain drain is a persistent talent development challenge.  Rural schools develop talented young people who often opt for careers in more urban settings.  The pandemic appears to be reversing some of these trends, as in-migration to many rural regions appears to be on the rise.   As these pandemic-related effects dissipate, we’ll need to get a better handle on the types of people who want to relocate or return to rural towns.  An interesting new research paper, highlighted in the excellent Daily Yonder, takes a look at this important question:  who returns?

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The research paper, “Rural College Graduates:  Who Comes Home?”, examines the factors that lead rural college graduates to return home in their 30s and 40s.  We know that this is the typical age when former rural residents often opt to return home for a better quality of life and to be closer to family.  But, what factors differentiate returnees from those who opt to remain in major metro areas?   The researchers find that a student’s school experience is critical.  If they feel close to their school and cared for by the community, they are more likely to consider returning. This finding shouldn’t surprise us.  A more surprising result is that this effect is strongest in communities with lower overall education levels.  The authors suggest that this pattern may be driven by the fact that the returning graduates hope and intend to “make a difference” in their (perhaps more economically challenged) home communities. 

What does this mean?  It highlights the importance of investing in local schools and in supporting close school ties during school and after graduation.  If this link remains strong, the potential for attracting talent improves.  Along the way, we’ll create a win-win for the rural places and for their returning natives as well.