Sidney A. McPhee, MTSU President, left, helps We Haul Volunteer Graem Merritt, Sophomore, move Freshman Macie Mussleman, second from right, along with her father, Matt, into Corlew Hall Friday during We Haul. MTSU file photo by Andy Heidt

EDITOR’S NOTE: For another look at the concept of “brain drain” and patterns of young people leaving and returning to rural areas, see Savannah Wooten’s story from 2012.

All around the country this week rural and small-town college students will be returning to campus from abbreviated academic breaks. For the first time in their adult lives many of them will have spent their school holidays largely absent from their home communities, incentivized by careful design to stay on campus and take a proliferating palette of December-term or January-term courses or otherwise to subscribe to an enticing smorgasbord of exotic study abroad programs.

Lately America’s college and universities have quietly moved in droves to the semester system, mostly on the basis of anecdotal or uncertain evidence that first-generation and academically-challenged college students perform better in more deliberately paced 15 or 16-week terms. Meanwhile, the percentage of institutions like mine on the quarter system nationally (less than 15% and falling fast) evidences a near total victory for the advocates of longer academic terms as retention strategy and a way to prevent at-risk (often rural or small-town first-generation college students like I was) from leaving. Students who don’t return to campus after extended holiday breaks, after all, mean lost tuition dollars and, arguably, lost or “wasted” talent. And the long winter holidays of the traditional quarter or trimester system (which typically lasted from Thanksgiving all the way into the New Year) are now viewed by many geodemographically-anxious college administrators as inviting leave-takings and lost business.

Keep ’em busy, and keep ’em on campus, the logic goes, and they’ll forget about possibly leaving, or transferring, or working full-time, or caregiving for families and communities who have missed them, and missed them badly, during the months they’ve been away at college. Today’s college and universities often forget that the hemorrhaging of 18- to 24-year-olds in small Middle American communities like mine is an especially poignant loss in areas already suffering the slings and arrows of pervasive brain drain and youth outmigration. Late November and early December for out-migrating students on the quarter system traditionally meant homecoming…not always an easy homecoming, it’s true, but an important and sustained re-immersion in the home community nevertheless. You see it’s not just a quaint 19th century notion that parents and guardians need help around the house, around the farm, around the small-business; local entrepreneurs depend on returning students for holiday help; community food banks and relief organizations look forward to students’ perennial return to their home communities to replenish their volunteer corps with badly needed youthful optimism.

Wendell Berry has consistently argued that colleges and universities educate students to leave home. In his novel Hannah Coulter he further articulates that core hypocrisy writing, “The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on.”

When and where higher education begins to discount or downgrade time spent at home (home as dysfunctional, home and home ties as a threat to retention and recruitment; small-town and rural home-feelings and home-comings as a obstacle to persistence), it unwittingly strikes the same blow to the American family that industrialism and capitalism have allegedly been striking for centuries. At base, the kind of education that casts aspersions on rural students’ ties to home and community fails to honor the root understanding made between the gifting home communities and the gifted college and universities to whom they entrust their best and brightest: take our young people, teach them, open their minds, keep them safe, but don’t turn them against us or keep them from us.

Zachary Michael Jack teaches in the Writing and Leadership, Ethics and Values (LEV) programs at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. A seventh generation native Iowan who still lives on the farm, he is author of many books on rural and small-town culture, including most recently Wish You Were Here: Love and Longing in an American Heartland.

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