Common assumptions about rural brain drain may be incorrect, according to research published in the American Educational Research Journal.

The study, conducted by researchers Robert Petrin, Kai Schafft and Judith Meece, reveals that high-achieving high school students are not necessarily more likely to leave a rural community than students who aren’t as interested in academics. And of those students who do leave, high-achievers are more likely to indicate a desire to return.

This desire to return home is linked to high-achievers’ stronger feelings of community engagement and connection.

Local economic conditions and students’ perceptions of future employment opportunities are the largest factors influencing the decision to stay or leave, the study showed.

The study also found little evidence for the assertion that teachers and school administrators contribute to brain drain by “grooming” their best students to leave. The study showed that these interactions do not have a significant impact on the students’ decisions to stay or leave.

“Stayers” and “Leavers”

The researchers used “educational sorting,” a research technique popularized by Patrick Carr and Patricia Kefalas in Hollowing Out the Middle: Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for Rural America. Each student was placed in a subcategory based on academic achievement and residential aspirations, allowing the researchers to survey and analyze each “type” of student.

The rural high school students were categorized into four groups. “Achievers” and “nonacademics”  designations were made based on academic performance and community involvement. These groups were asked about their residential aspirations after graduation, creating the “stayers” and the “leavers” categories. From these two divisions, four groups were created: “achiever stayers,” “achiever leavers,” “nonacademic stayers” and “nonacademic leavers.”

Males are more likely to aspire to stay than to leave (51.3%), while females are more likely to aspire to leave than to stay (58.3%). Male achievers are more significantly influenced by potential employment opportunities than are male nonacademics, yet this distinction does not exist among females. Females are more influenced by regional effects, perhaps a result of “the gendered structure of opportunity in rural communities” but also indicating “the possibility of interactions between gender, academic and community integration and educational aspirations.”

The Rural Return

The research counters the idea that rural brain drain is always a loss for rural communities, as it indicates significant potential for “rural return.”  The study shows that certain factors (family structure, connections to a farming lifestyle, living in one place for most or all of one’s life, and an all-around deep attachment to a rural community) have strong influences on students’ aspirations to return home after leaving.

In particular, high-achieving students who have thrived in and benefited from life in a rural community are more likely to feel connected to it. Thus, these students are more likely to express a desire to return home than their nonacademic counterparts.

While most community adults believe these students must leave to gain skills and education not available at home, they also hope high-achievers will follow through on their desire return with skills and knowledge necessary to improve their home towns.

 “We want our youth to stay, but at the same time, we want them to have the opportunities that they are not going to have if they necessarily stay here,” explained a rural high school educator and interviewee. “We want them to go out and find these opportunities, but… we need some of the more successful ones to come back and… really push the town to grow and succeed.”

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