Small communities … and our Northwest is full of ‘em … have long faced the problem of losing many of the “best and brightest” to the big city. It’s one of those economic and educational dilemmas we have always lived with and there doesn’t seem to be a ready solution.

I’ve done it both ways: moved to the big city for career and income enhancement, then back home after finding quality of life was more important than either. But it seems many of the” best-and-brightest” make the move out and never come back. Why?

A new book titled “Hollowing out the middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means For America” is the latest research I’ve seen on this chronic small town reality. Civic and political leaders in all small Northwest towns ought to take some time to look at this work.

While sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas are big city folk, they are sensitive to the values of rural life like sense-of-place, close communities and intergenerational relationships. None of their findings surprised me but they’ve presented them in interesting ways that make a lot of sense.

They classify people in rural America… especially young people … in four general categories: “achievers,” “stayers,” “seekers” and “returners.”

“Achievers” are most often young, bright and inquisitive. They are encouraged by parents and teachers to study hard in high school, go on to higher education and seek careers that generally take them away from small home towns. A lot of ‘em keep on going.

“Stayers” … most of whom are male … tend not do well in high school, don’t really like school and have not received encouragement to go to college. Many are in working class families and see themselves staying in town and getting a job. They often have jobs as teens and this early income earning experience and youthful buying power help shape their view of successful living.

“Seekers” aren’t interested in higher education but don’t want to stay where they are. So some look for other ways to get out of town. Fact is, rural kids are heavily recruited by the military, for example. Many talk about “making a contribution to my country” but enlistment bonuses, travel and escape probably carry more actual influence.

“Returners” has two subcategories: “high flyers” and “boomerangs.” The first are usually achievers who, for some reason, go back home or to some other rural area. Encouraged to leave home in the first place, Oregon and other states are mounting campaigns to get them back to help revitalize local economies. Guess I’m one of those.

Boomerangs … most often female … usually come back on their own, disappointed by the outside world and wanting to renew that “sense-of-community” they remember. Or think they do. Sometimes they just want to be closer to family. Often they marry shortly after returning, start a family and settle in and may … or may not … resume careers later.

So, the summary for Carr and Kefalas seems to be: best students leave town and only rarely return; the less-educated either stay or come back shortly after leaving; few professionals are lured back and those that do return usually come more for personal reasons than economic.

Author’s words: “As the cycle continues, fewer people remain in small towns, fewer still with the training and support to attempt (local) revitalization.”

But the authors offer some suggestions. One is to encourage policymakers, educators and others to focus on “boomerang” and “stayers” through stronger relationships between local high schools and community colleges and establishing career academies along with dual credit or transition programs for these two groups. Try to build links and place-based approaches in K-12 education with curriculum and instruction focused on local community needs such as economic development. Northwest community colleges do a pretty good job in this area. They could do better.

But there are other suggestions; some academic; some more real world and incentive-based. Carr and Kefalas believe their research has shown community leaders, local and state policy makers, educators and young people themselves must re-imagine their rural destinies. If they don’t, some small towns may just cease to exist.

This is not a new subject in rural communities; researchers have studied and written many tomes, most of which languish on dusty book shelves somewhere. But this work is well–written, clearly identifies some of the most important factors in rural decline and offers hope.

I possess no expertise or special training on this topic. But if I can read what Carr and Kefalas have written, understand it enough to be enlightened and encouraged enough to recommend it to those who do, just think what they might get out of the book.

It’s worth the read!

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