Studying The Rural Brain Drain: Where Aspirations Outpace Opportunity

Aug 21, 2014

Sociologists have been worried for a while about a phenomenon called "rural brain drain." The best and the brightest young students are leaving rural areas in search of jobs and opportunities elsewhere.

A 2009 book called Hollowing Out The Middle suggested that teachers are directly responsible for this phenomenon. That didn’t sound right to Kai Schafft, an associate professor of education at Penn State. He and several colleagues had surveyed almost 9,000 rural high school students about their career and educational aspirations, and they dove deeper into the study with focus groups and interviews to find out just why high achieving students leave rural areas. 

On the argument in Hollowing Out The Middle

There have been lots of studies done about why [rural brain drain happens], and people have come up with all kinds of hypotheses. And one hypothesis is that schools play a role in sorting students according to ... ability ... And so they sort students into the high achievers and the students who are sort of the middle of the road, and the students who aren't such high achievers. And they really focus their attention on the high achieving students and pass on these expectations that, you know, to make something of your life you need to go to bigger and better things.

On surveying rural high school students

We were wondering about this [hypothesis] and the extent to which this was true. And I was working on a project where we had conducted a survey of ninth through twelfth graders across 73 different rural schools across 34 states. [We] ended up with a survey of almost 9,000 high school students. We asked all kinds of questions about their career and residential and educational aspirations, their school experiences, and also their perceptions of the home community. 

"What we found was that, in fact, instead of the highest achieving students being the ones that most wanted to leave their rural home communities, they were the ones who in fact were most attached to their home communities, and most wanted to stay." - Kai Schafft, associate professor of education at Penn State

And what we found was that, in fact, instead of the highest achieving students being the ones that most wanted to leave their rural home communities, they were the ones who in fact were most attached to their home communities, and most wanted to stay ... Which is a little bit of a counterintuitive finding until you begin to think about the experiences of successful students, and the kind of the experiences they associate with where they've been successful. And so, when you think about it like that it's not too surprising that they have those ... tighter connections to their home communities and their schools.

On the mismatch between rural aspiration and opportunity

What we learned  ... was that the problem is not the expectation that high-achieving students are going to leave and go to the bright lights and big city, but rather that there is a mismatch between rural youth aspirations and rural youth opportunity in many communities in rural America.

"The problem is not the expectation that high-achieving students are going to leave and go to the bright lights and big city, but rather that there is a mismatch between rural youth aspirations and rural youth opportunity."

In other words, instead of thinking about this as an education issue ... it really is a rural development issue. And it really speaks to the systematic under investment in rural America. And then when you consider that it is precisely the best and the brightest who do want to stay when they can, that has some pretty interesting implications for rural America. And I think that one of the implications is that a visionary and comprehensive rural development strategy, which, right now we really don't have one, should really involve rural schools as drivers of rural development.

On the students who want to come back

We found lots and lots of evidence of people coming back. For instance, in our focus groups with community members, and also with teachers, who often are local people, they talked about coming up through the local school and moving away and coming back and how the community was sort of in their blood.

"Instead of thinking about this as an education issue ... it really is a rural development issue. And it really speaks to the systematic under investment in rural America."

But the issue here is really what there is to come back to. And if there's one way to characterize rural America, it's diversity. We tend to think about rural America as this one blanket kind of countryside, and that's really not the case. Rural communities are vastly different from each other along the lines of history and geography and economics and culture, and all of those things impact how young people understand what their opportunities are. And so, one of the things we found was that in some of the communities where there really were some good opportunities for young people, they were encouraged to leave, the assumption ... was that they have these strong community ties, and they're going to go out, and gather these connections and these experiences and these skills and ultimately they're going to bring them back to the community.

Special VPR Series: Choosing Vermont: Voices Of The State's Young Professionals