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Is a brain drain “hollowing out” rural America?

Two sociologists say the meltdown of rural America has reached a tipping point, one which is “transforming rural communities throughout the nation into impoverished ghost towns.”

In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, husband and wife Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas say a brain drain led to a “hollowing out” of rural America — losing the most talented young people at the same time changes in farming and industry have changed the landscape for those who stay. Although the couple moved to Ellis, Iowa, about 80 miles north of Des Moines, to do their research, pictures of Arlington, S.D., and Humboldt, S.D. accompany the article on the publication’s web site.

The loss of jobs and family farms in rural areas has been caused by a variety of factors, they say, including such things as the rise of agribusiness and big-box retail stores and the decline of unions and blue-collar wages. “Civic and business leaders in the places most affected by hollowing out will tell anyone willing to listen how it is their young people, not hogs, steel, beef, corn, or soybeans, that have become their most valuable export commodity,” they write.

They broke the youth into four categories: 40 percent were working-class “stayers;” 20 percent were collegebound “achievers” and they often left for good; 10 were “seekers” joining the military to see the world; and the rest were “returners,” those who eventually came back home but only a small number of whom were “high fliers,” i.e., professionals. The local high school guidance counselor put it more bluntly, saying “the best kids go while the ones with the biggest problems stay, and then we have to deal with their kids in the schools in the next generation.”

Not only is the lack of job opportunities a problem, so is what is available in the workforce. Today’s economy demands more than just a high school education for economic viability, meaning “the choices stayers make doom them to downward mobility and poverty.” If the best and the brightest leave and the downwardly mobile stay, it’s not hard to tell where a community will end up. While some have advocated abandoning the plains (the so-called “Buffalo Commons“), Carr and Kefalas say it would be a mistake to give up on rural America. They suggest a variety of approaches, several at the local level having to do with education and several at the national level dealing with economic stimulus and education.

To some extent, Sioux Falls contributes to the problem. Look at its growth compared to the decline in the state’s small, rural communities. And while the city is probably attracting some of the “achievers,” I would bet it is attracting even more who aren’t leaving their hometowns simply for a wider range of employment options. I would also wager that both Arlington and Humboldt stand a better chance than say Faith or Gettysburg just because they are located relatively close to the I-29 corridor.

But Sioux Falls isn’t immune. A lot of the top kids in my daughters’ high school classes went out of state because they had better scholarship offers. And it isn’t like they’re all going a long way away, with several in Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa. It also happened with my kids. The scholarship package the Nebraska public universities offered my middle daughter compared to USD’s made her choice of Nebraska a no-brainer. My youngest is in Massachusetts and South Dakota offers neither of her majors. In addition, the ACT scores, grades and class rank that would earn them the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship ($5,000 over four years) bring full tuition waivers for residents in the Nebraska and Massachusetts systems — and rest assured the out-of-state colleges love to cherry pick here and offer similar scholarships to our best.

And that is where we, at least, face a Catch-22. While South Dakota works hard to provide smaller schools with Advanced Placement courses and similar opportunities through such things as the South Dakota Virtual School, it probably increases the likelihood the best and the brightest become exports. Even if we do entice them to stay or come back, what are the odds they will return to rural communities as opposed to towns along the I-29 corridor? It’s a difficult problem, one I fear may ultimately be insoluble.


The residents of rural America must embrace the fact that to survive, the world they knew and cherished must change.

Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, “The Rural Brain Drain

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3 comments to Is a brain drain “hollowing out” rural America?

  • Great article, Tim. I love it here, and as a teacher, I’ve always tried to be the one counter voice who tells the bright kids that staying in South Dakota is not a sign of failure. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person saying that and meaning it. In so many other ways, our culture sends the message that if you are bright and talented and don’t leave South Dakota, there must be something wrong with you.

    Our schools’ and legislature’s unwillingness to really invest in that talent doesn’t help. Even I would have a hard time arguing that your kids should have put love of South Dakota above the really good deals they were offered by out-of-state colleges. When we expect people to stay in South Dakota purely out of the goodness of their hearts, we are asking for brain drain.

  • If the PBS show on “Ghosts in the Genes” discussing “epigenes” is a real indicator of the future SD generations, we not only have a brain drain, but a brain-drained future because of what appears to be genetic changes brought on by environment and behavior of grandparents such as smoking, drinking and over-eating.

    Reading SD obituaries can be very discouraging if you happened to know the children who may have been the best and brightest in SD, but are now survivors living in other states.

    This is a problem that will only get worse every generation. The parsimonious legislative support of education is the “gift” that will keep on giving long after the legislators are dead.