Stephanie Sowl, a Ph.D. candidate at Iowa State University, studied college graduates between the ages of 34 and 43 who returned home to rural communities. Her study was published in Rural Sociology in October. (Photo submitted)

“Brain drain” is an all-too familiar depiction of families standing on the front porch waving goodbye as their pride and joy leave for colleges and move to distant cities for generous-paying jobs and the excitement of urban centers.

What about the opposite scenario: the lure of returning home for college graduates?

Research Results reports on academic studies exploring a wide range of rural topics.

Stephanie Sowl, a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at Iowa State University and a research fellow with the Campaign for College Opportunity, published “Rural College Graduates: Who Comes Home?” in the October edition of Rural Sociology with co-authors Rachel Smith and Michael Brown. The authors examined college graduates between the ages of 34 and 43 who returned to rural communities. Among other findings, the researchers discovered that college graduates were more likely to return home if they had higher levels of attachment to K-12 schools. We asked Sowl to tell us more about her research.


Daily Yonder:  How did you become interested in studying “brain gain” – the return of college graduates to their rural roots?

Stephanie Sowl:  Rural schools and communities tend to be described as dilapidated and failing and that the only way for youth to be successful is to leave their rural hometowns and not return. The factors leading to “brain drain” are also well-represented in research. We wanted to center returning home – specifically of the youth who left to obtain a postsecondary degree – to understand what rural schools and communities contribute, showcasing the strengths and assets and how community leaders can leverage those strengths to bring former residents home.

Daily Yonder:  Your research indicates that rural return migration is significantly influenced by attachment to K-12 schools as well as population density and education levels of college graduates’ hometowns. Can you explain more about these results and if you were surprised by your findings?

Sowl:  Our study underscores the importance of youth feeling close to others at their school, feeling cared for, and like they are part of the school community to returning home 20 years later. Rural youth who have had positive experiences with their schooling were more likely to return which could indicate the strength of these school ties over time – between peers, teachers, and other school staff. We believe lower population density also connects to a more close-knit environment. Neither of these results was particularly surprising to us. But, what was surprising was that college graduates who were from lower-educated communities were more likely to return than those from higher-educated communities. This is in direct contrast with how “brain drain” communities have been described – that the lack of employment opportunities and fewer college degree holders have led to academically talented rural youth being pushed out permanently. In our case, youth who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree were more likely to return, not stay away.

Daily Yonder:  What are some of the other complex factors that motivate the mobility of college graduates beyond simply the pursuit of economic opportunities?

Sowl:  This is something we are currently researching but based on previous evidence, mobility has been motivated by proximity to family – both in terms of having family nearby to help with children and for caretaking responsibilities as parents get older. Other factors could include a desire to live in a safe location, more affordable housing options than in a large city, or opportunities to get involved to make a meaningful impact within the community.

Daily Yonder:  Do you anticipate conducting further research into brain gain and rural return migration?

Sowl:  Yes! We are currently working on a paper that looks at migration patterns of rural adults, both who have completed at least an associate’s degree and those who have not, to determine (1) whether the home communities they returned to look the same as they did when they left 20 years prior and (2) for those who did not return, how similar their current community is to the one they lived in 20 years ago. We’re very interested in looking at how this varies geographically as well. 

Daily Yonder:  What do you see as the practical implications of your research and potential policies for community leaders seeking to revitalize rural communities?

Sowl:  We know college graduates can bring many assets back to their home communities in hopes of revitalization – they possess professional occupational skills, can bring in new businesses and contribute to the local economy, are more likely to volunteer or hold leadership positions in the community, may provide different ideas and values learned elsewhere, and have wide social connections. We would recommend community leaders invest in their public K-12 schools because there is value in strong, supportive relationships in the school environment. Ensuring the school plays a central role within the community can encourage a return home as well as assuring youth that they have a place to come back to and thrive in. The fact that rural college graduates were also more likely to return to a lower college-educated community points to the importance of promoting messaging that youth have the opportunity to make an impact at home and be significant contributors to their community’s development. We also suggest that K-12 schools, local community colleges, and local businesses partner to showcase the types of career opportunities available within their community as well as the potential for future careers. An example of these types of initiatives can include the Grow Your Own programs. 

Kelly Taber is a former print journalist who works in higher education in West Virginia.

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