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Monday, October 26, 2009

The Rural Brain Drain, part 3

For the past two weeks I shared portions of an article entitled "The Rural Brain Drain" found in the October 6th edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. This week's Part 3 focuses on actions that can be taken to address the concern. Part 3 of 3: What can be done to plug the brain drain?

Small towns need to equalize their investments across different groups of young people. While it would be impractical, and downright wrong, to abort students' ambitions, there must be a radical rethinking of the goals of high-school education. The single-minded focus on pushing the most motivated students into four-year colleges must be balanced by efforts to match young people not headed for bachelor's degrees with training, vocational, and assorted associate-degree programs.

Also, school officials, parents, educators, and students must resist the temptation to think the non-college bound will just get a job if a degree is not in the cards. Gone are the days of plentiful, well-paying blue-collar factory jobs that provided a 19-year-old with a living wage. Thinking that working the line at John Deere or Winnebago will vault you into the middle class makes about as much sense as buying eight-track tapes in the iPod age. The reality is that students not earning a college degree need as much, if not more, intensive preparation for today's labor market.

The next step is to build better links between high-school and postsecondary education. Most of the job growth within Iowa is expected to come from computer, biotech, wind energy, and health care. Matching high-school students not headed for university with vocational or community-college programs, nurturing their interests while in high school through internships and training, will prepare them for the new economic growth areas. The growing distance-learning technology should not cater only to older, returning students. If students are interested in wind technology or nursing, rather than making them take social studies senior year, how about connecting them with a distance-learning class at Iowa Lakes Community College in Introduction to Computers?

Third, small towns should seek to embrace immigration. Ph.D.'s from India or China and less-skilled immigrants from Mexico or Central America should all be recruited and supported in an effort to make the heartland an immigrant enterprise zone. The region is in critical need of professional-class workers, and bringing in Hispanic workers for the food industry will not be enough to rejuvenate the region.

Fourth, areas that are losing population can help remain vibrant by enticing much-needed high fliers to come back home. There are free land programs in Kansas, Minnesota, and North Dakota, a statewide campaign in Iowa to bring back professionals, and student-loan-forgiveness programs in Maine for college graduates willing to commit to stay in the state. While the jury is out on whether any of those programs work, we believe that towns can help themselves by identifying future professionals and offering them tuition relief for graduate school that is contingent on a 10-year commitment to practice in the area. Many rural areas are medically underserved and this is one way to tackle that basic problem.

The rural crisis has been ignored for too long, but, we believe, it isn't too late to start paying attention. The residents of rural America must embrace the fact that to survive, the world they knew must change.