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ISU data analysis identifies what brings college graduates back to their small towns

Cars fill up parking spots along Main Street in Cherokee, IA
ISU Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice.
Cars fill up parking spots along Main Street in Cherokee

While many researchers have studied what leads young people to leave rural areas, Iowa State University researchers are focusing on what brings them back.

A new data analysis from ISU shows that students’ experiences in their small town public schools impact whether they move back to their rural roots after leaving to attend college. Graduates between the ages of 34 and 43 are more likely to return to their hometowns if they felt close to their teachers, peers and school community.

ISU researcher Stephanie Sowl, one of the study’s co-authors, calls that migration of talent back to rural areas “brain gain." She said the study’s findings may help small communities identify the key to fueling growth and combat “brain drain," the exodus of talent from small towns.

“Instead of focusing on why people never return, and painting rural communities as outdated or stagnant…I really wanted to try to reframe that narrative to understand what factors are related to a return home,” she said.

Sowl said the data analysis’ findings show the importance of investing in adolescent communities. Rural areas need to invest in their young people’s education and find ways for them to participate in community development, she said.

Encouraging conversations between rural businesses and young people can be a good first step, Sowl said.

“You can create these opportunities for youth to be involved,” she said. “So, getting them invested early, and sending the message to them that ‘Yes, you can come back with your new skills, we can use you to fulfill volunteership and leadership positions.’”

“The fact that people are returning really underscores the importance of creating change through these existing connections and building collective action to make sure that these communities thrive.”
ISU researcher Stephanie Sowl

The research also showed population density to be a major factor on whether educated people returned home. The smaller the town, the more likely participants were to return as adults.

School size also played a role. Participants who attended a high school with more than 350 students were 74% less likely to return home than participants who attended a school with fewer than 125 students.

Sowl said this data shows the value of the tight-knit nature of many small communities.

“The fact that people are returning really underscores the importance of creating change through these existing connections and building collective action to make sure that these communities thrive.”

Graduates were more likely to return to rural towns with fewer college degrees holders. Sowl said she believes many return with the hopes of using their education to make a difference.

“If they feel connected to the school, if they feel connected to the people in their town, if they feel like they can really make a difference and they’re returning,” she said. “I think that says a lot.”