Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
There is one very important thing to remember when plowing snow, Minnesotan Erik Osberg says — even if it’s “not a lot of snow, like, just 4 or 5 inches,” you need to push it a long way.
“You’ve got to leave room for the next snow.”
Leaving aside my bemusement at what, exactly, Osberg considers to be “a lot of snow,” the point is well taken.
Old snow hardens. And if you let it pile up without leaving space, it will be almost impossible to move later.
Osberg is the Rural Rebound Initiative Coordinator for Otter Tail County, a 60,000 person county nearly three hours from Minneapolis in west-central Minnesota.
As far as he knows, Osberg is the only person in the country with his job title. His role? Convincing you to move to Otter Tail, which boasts more than 1,000 lakes in the state known for having 10,000 of them.
“You don’t just walk up to somebody you think is cute and ask them to marry you,” he says. “You ask them for a date — and so we treat tourism as that date.”
It’s hard not to be charmed as Osberg talks about rural Otter Tail.
The former small-market sports anchor and door-to-door salesman is endearing. He pitches the county with colorful docuseries like “Rural by Choice” and adds the hashtag #otcmoment to his photos of beautiful sunrises.
What stands out most to me — a Georgia boy with absolutely no desire to be shoveling snow piles in this or any lifetime — is the academic concept underpinning his approach: the “Rural Brain Gain.”
The term was coined by University of Minnesota Extension researcher Ben Winchester as a way to combat the opposite problem that many rural areas know all too well — the brain drain of people moving away for college or career advancement and never returning.
While brain drain does occur, particularly with rural areas losing recent high school graduates, Winchester also found that a significant uptick in 30- to 49- year-olds contributed to a form of “brain gain” in most of Minnesota’s rural counties from 2000 to 2010.
Often already holding degrees, and with steady footing in their careers, these professionals brought with them significant social connections and financial resources.
Winchester also found that two-thirds of these new rural residents actually grew up elsewhere.
His findings present an opportunity for rural areas across the country to capitalize on. There’s a population of people interested in moving to rural areas, and Osberg aims to draw them in.
“I don’t know if this is right or wrong, but I view it as my job to write our own narrative,” Osberg says — a job he took in 2017, after an Otter Tail County administrator had heard Winchester talk about his research and wanted to put it in action.
Adaptation in ‘Cabin Country’
There are a lot of reasons for people to visit Otter Tail. Tourism is already significant — it’s part of Minnesota’s “cabin country.”
The start of Walleye season in May always draws a crowd, and other festivities dot the calendar, such as the April maple syrup festival.
But the county needs more than its tourist charms to convince people to move there permanently. Officials are working to improve lagging internet speeds and increase the availability of affordable housing and childcare.
Osberg and his colleagues also hope to make permanent what what was a pandemic trend — Twin Cities residents who would normally visit their cabin on the weekends instead staying for months.
More Rural Higher Ed News
Stripped of majors. The Hechinger Report explores the challenge rural students face as universities increasingly cut majors, — forcing them to travel greater distances to study certain subjects and, in some cases, discouraging them from pursuing higher education at all.
Yet, some colleges are expanding. It’s not all negative. Some community colleges in particular are reorienting to offer more services: Take Yavapai College, which just launched a B.S. in Business, the first baccalaureate degree offered by a rural community college in Arizona.
USDA seeks rural entrepreneurs. The Rural Business Development Grant is opening up funding for enterprise partnerships and projects across the country. In the past, such funding has been used to fund broadband projects, among other things. Applications close Feb. 28: check out the USDA website for a state-by-state look.
“We’re exposing people to the fact that you don’t have to give up what you love to come here, and you won’t be stuck in a car for an hour every morning and an hour every evening,” he says.
Still, people will need to find work, and not everyone can work in the county’s core industries: education, health care, and manufacturing.
And while community colleges have always been a critical part of workforce development, that role has escalated in recent years.
“We’re supposed to be adding courses all the time, and taking them away, to mirror workforce needs. It’s the speed at which people expect us to do so that’s changed,” says Carrie Brimhall, the president of Minnesota State Community and Technical College.
MSCTC formed as a merger of various colleges two decades ago. When Brimhall became president five years ago, credit-based students significantly outnumbered non-credit ones — but that’s flipped since.
“Workforce is such a problem, there just aren’t enough people to do the jobs,” she says, and it’s a statewide issue, as there are reportedly 2.5 jobs for every one person in Minnesota.
That has led to a diverse student body with disparate needs, from recent high school grads who can’t easily learn plumbing or HVAC trades online to mid-career professionals seeking management training.
Getting enough teachers to meet demand is a constant challenge, particularly because qualified instructors can typically make much more working directly in their industry. The college’s leadership instructor is already booked for the entire year.
Increasingly, the college has asked local employers to free up some of their employees’ time to teach — working out a schedule that works for both is mutually beneficial.
“If we take a qualified instructor that could be working for them, that leaves a hole for the employer. But if we don’t train students, there’s an even bigger hole,” Brimhall says.
The college has four campuses across the county, connecting rural spaces hours away from each other, from Wadena and Fergus Falls to Detroit Lakes and Moorhead.
Its willingness to create flexible schedules and embrace remote learning — online degrees have been offered since 2003 — has helped Otter Tail in its “brain gain” quest.
“They haven’t been rigid about what the school has been,” Osberg says. “Instead, they’ve asked: ‘Alright, what does the community around us need now?’”
The ability to adapt is critical for rural communities. And these Minnesotans have no trouble remembering it. As they know well, it’s always important to leave room for the next snow.
This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.