I am graduating in December 2018, and I’m not sure where the first couple of years of my career will take me. One thing I do know is that when I am ready to raise a family, I will move back to my hometown — and you should too.
When I tell people this, a lot of them cringe.
“Why would you want to do that?” they ask. “Don’t be afraid to get out and experience the world!”
It is not fear of the unknown that tethers me to my roots, however, but rather the fear that without young people like me, everything I love about my small-town community will eventually go extinct.
According to the USDA Economic Research Services, there has been a 1 percent decrease in the population in rural communities in Missouri since 1990.
However, several rural counties in Missouri, such as Pemiscott, Ozark, Sullivan and Holt, have reported a greater than 5 percent drop in population from 2010 to 2017. And this problem is not just one for the Show-Me State, but nationwide.
While a certain level of migration in and out of a community is expected, many of these tiny towns are seeing recent high school graduates leave to pursue a college degree and never return. This is a process known as the rural brain drain. As young people leave the community, the flow of ideas leaves as well.
This lack of ideas means lack of innovation, industry and progressive leadership within the community. This can also mean fewer students in the community pursuing secondary education according to the American Educational Research Journal.
Internal factors play a huge role in this exodus. Students who grew up in rural communities have a hard time finding a reason to return to their rural roots after pursuing a secondary education. Many times, I have heard, “I cannot wait to get out of this tiny town,” as my fellow classmates yearned for something more than our bedroom community.
Some wanted to leave to seek greater opportunities and gain new perspectives, while others felt they had been treated unfairly by the community. They were not able to identify with the community and therefore chose to leave and seek a community with which they could better integrate.
There are also external factors that affect this migration. There has been a decline in family farming operations across the nation, prompting many farm families to encourage their kids to leave to pursue secondary education as a form of job security. Unless these students are passionate about returning to the farm, they too are often sucked into areas with higher paying jobs and greater career opportunities, doing the exact opposite of what their parents hoped would happen.
Additionally, parents, teachers, counselors and leaders within small communities have been consistently pushing the idea of leaving to seek more for students. While this mentality is meant to be beneficial, it is taking its toll on rural communities by encouraging the best and brightest to abandon their roots and take their drive and leadership skills elsewhere.
I think the responsibility lies with the students who are leaving to eventually come back. Not as recent college graduates, but after establishing a career and starting a family. Bringing those ideas, skills and new lives back into the community that helped raise them. It is also important to consider options other than four-year universities and offer programs in high schools to get students interested in careers near their hometowns. Trade schools are an excellent alternative to the typical four-year institutions and can provide students with skills that could be used in developing industry right in their backyards.
I still plan to return to my hometown and be a productive, contributing member of the community, just like my family has done for many generations. I would challenge each student who has even the slightest desire to return to their hometown to get creative and figure out how you can help plug the rural brain drain.