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For America’s college students who leave behind their rural communities to pursue higher education, graduation brings challenges different from those their urban and suburban peers face. 

Hidden in plain sight, rural college students and their tribulations often go unnoticed. Less than a third of rural young people ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in colleges or universities, compared to nearly half of young people from the cities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics 

Rural students are less likely to consider their rural communities as sustainable post-graduation destinations. As a result, when rural students go to college, they envision their futures far from the communities that raised them. 

Rural students deserve support. College faculty and administrators, particularly student affairs and career services administrators, have the capacity to counsel rural students through their economic and social worries.    

Economic Concerns: Rural America’s Declining Economies

Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, describes the town she grew up in rural south-central Kansas as “a place people said was dying.” This kind of thinking weighs heavily on the minds of rural students as they plan their post-graduation employment. 

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Change, not stability, characterizes rural America’s economy. Historically, rural economies have been less protected from economic hardship, argues Dr. David Brown, emeritus professor of development sociology at Cornell University, in Rural America in a Globalizing World

As first-hand witnesses to the financial volatility in their hometowns, rural students question if they can achieve the lifestyles of previous rural generations. Although agriculture, forestry, and mining will remain essential industries, service and retail professions currently account for most of the job growth in rural America. 

For Liam Meier, a recent graduate of New York University and native of Breese, Illinois, the economic woes of rural southern Illinois first drove him away for college and again, during his job search. Meier, now based in San Francisco, stated: “it’s difficult to choose to go back home when the best opportunities lie elsewhere because economic opportunity and power are concentrated in coastal cities.”    

Recognizing the dearth of support for graduates focused on pursuing rural opportunities, grassroots organizations have risen to the occasion. To attract college-educated youth to West Virginia, Generation West Virginia, working with West Virginia University and Marshall University, delivers professional networking for young professionals. They also provide career training workshops and resources for community-focused startups throughout the mountain state. 

The program promotes rural opportunities to all students, not just rural students looking to return to their hometowns.  

Seth Jones, a senior at the University of Wyoming and a native of Upton, Wyoming, learned quickly that leaving home most likely meant not returning because of the town’s limited economy. 

“For a lot of people from small town Wyoming, there simply isn’t the option to return back to your small town and make a living. If you want to stay, people usually attempt to stay with the mines, ranch through family connections, work in education, or the service industry,” Jones said. 

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The limited rural job market means rural graduates may have worries that their suburban or urban graduates do not. 

To avoid that stress, Dr. Doug Guiffrida, professor of counseling and human development at the University of Rochester, advocates supplemental career counseling and advising directly targeting rural populations. 

Dr. Guiffrida also encourages career centers to gradually expose rural students to the range of occupations beyond those typical of their rural communities. This helps lessen crushing feelings brought on by the extensive career choices marketed on college campuses. 

“My high school did not prepare myself or many others attending college for what options there would be. So, there certainly was some sense of bewilderment to what I was supposed to do so I could prepare for my career. Having opportunity wasn’t scary, that’s why I wanted to attend college, but not being sure how to plan due to the limited career resources my high school had, it did leave me with a major learning curve to adjust to,” stated Jones. 

Career centers on college campuses should recognize that many rural students are arriving on campus with limited knowledge of career options and employment plans. 

Social Concerns: No Advocates for Return & Internal Conflicts

Youth exodus from rural communities is not a new phenomenon. However, now more than ever, rural youth feel pressured, either directly or indirectly, to abandon their rural communities. States such as North Dakota, West Virginia, Kansas, and Georgia report some of the highest rates of out-migration.   

A 2010 survey by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship found that roughly 600 rural students stated their home communities encouraged them to plan their futures elsewhere. Growing up in Floyds Knobs, an unincorporated township in southern Indiana, Ashlyn Edwards, a recent graduate of Butler University, saw a similar narrative in her Kentuckiana hometown. 

“Whenever people from my hometown talk about people that have moved away and have gone on to be successful elsewhere, they are spoken about with sort of reverence and awe,” said Edwards. Narratives like this support the idea that success derives from leaving. 

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In rural towns, teachers and town officials may campaign for their best and brightest to attend college away. Once detached, they encourage them to stay away, as documented in
Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by Patrick J. Carr, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Maria J. Kefalas, a professor of sociology at Saint Joseph’s University.  

Rural students nearing graduation will often find themselves in a complicated set of internal negotiations. Despite nudges to abandon their rural roots, many favor a rural lifestyle over an urban one, if they could manage it. 

Some rural youth do not let the potential burdens defer their plans to return. “While the challenge of poverty is increasing, it still doesn’t deter me,” said Mercedes McCue, a senior at Colorado State University from Arriba, Colorado. 

“Those economic challenges are issues that we all face out there [eastern Colorado], and we learn to persevere, to adapt, to live simply, and to overcome. They have helped sculpt my own future career path and aspirations: continuing our family legacy of raising cattle and helping youth in agriculture and rural communities through nonprofit organizations.”

Some schools have created ways to help. For example, the University of Michigan and Cornell University, through their Kessler Scholarship programs, have implemented mentorship programs and increased academic support for rural students.  

Institutions can help prepare students for life after graduation before official education even begins. They can be more conscious of their messages to rural students and communities during recruitment. 

Admission teams must avoid perpetuating the story that their institutions are only plucking the best students out to never return. That narrative can lead to a sense of guilt among both students and families. The sense of guilt carries throughout their entire college career and often heightens near graduation. 

Jeff Carlson, senior director for strategy, operations, and rural engagement at College Board suggests using alumni to help encourage rural graduates’ interest in returning after graduation. Having rural alumni speak at family nights about their experiences in college, they can implant the idea that coming home after graduation does not mean failure.   

Some rural communities are trying to reverse the impact of these cultural and social signals. In Holt County, Nebraska, the Holt County Economic Development grants scholarships to departing high school seniors and personalized mailboxes brimming with letters from community members, serving as reminders of their hometowns as they pursue higher education. In addition, local companies offer internships and professional guidance in hopes of reeling the out-goers back one day. 

After acknowledging the need to appeal to young college graduates in rural Kansas, towns throughout the Sunflower State have invested in alluring amenities like child care centers and capitalized in becoming renewable energy or art hubs. College career centers should take note of such initiatives as potential employers.    

To nurture rural America, we must invest in rural America’s youth at all stages of their education. Because young people are the key to rural America’s future. As McCue said, “Be where your feet are. Recognize that you add value wherever you may be.” 

Allen Kenneth Schaidle is an independent higher education researcher with advanced degrees from the University of Oxford and Columbia University,  with a focus on rural education and higher education.