Rural communities can break the cycle of ‘brain drain’
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The challenge of the “brain drain” from rural America to the big city, in some parts of the country, is very real. But the Pew Charitable Trust’s recent report provides proof that it doesn’t have to be.

The reality is that rural America can continue to prosper and grow, but only by using all of the tools and techniques available to rural communities. Higher education, particularly land-grant institutions, must be part of the equation. But we must evolve together to meet communities’ needs. In Minnesota, it means we make the most of our five campuses across the state. But we also must extend our reach even further.

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Years ago the county extension agent, typically focused on agricultural issues, was a mainstay in states across the Midwest. In Minnesota, our University of Minnesota Extension, a college-like entity within the University of Minnesota, served all 87 counties (and still does) but again, with a focused effort to improve the productivity, efficiency and safety of agricultural producers. Today the focus remains, but with a multi-layered effort, using resources across the university to support entire communities toward their shared success.

 

The Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships team within the Extension Service provides a project-based approach serving rural communities. These projects work on issues as varied as energy, tourism and clean energy, as well as the historical focus on agricultural and food systems. The partnerships connect communities, funding sources and University of Minnesota experts (faculty, staff and students) to work on specific issues that not only can help one community, but whose analysis and recommendations extend to communities across the state and indeed, across the region and the nation. 

Rural communities face unique and evolving challenges that, unless confronted, can lead to fundamental demographic changes that have a domino effect precluding new employers and opportunities from even considering the area. 

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. But in communities across the country and in Minnesota we are working on rural issues in ways that recognize the basic challenges of geography. That strategy aligns the strengths of communities and a leading research institution. That extends the competitive advantages of metro and regional centers in the right ways to blend with the small town atmosphere that attracts growth, population, business and talent. 

How do we know it works? Because University of Minnesota research quantifiably demonstrates, using the 2010 Census data as a benchmark, that some rural communities are actually growing their population of 30- to 49-year-olds. This cohort is not moving back to a dismal future at the peak of their earning potential. They are moving back to vibrant, exciting opportunities that enrich their lives, their families, and their communities.

When we invest in finding ways to grow rural communities we, in turn, grow our metropolitan areas. They may be separated by distance, but in our interconnected world and through the power of institutions, like the University of Minnesota, our shared success drives opportunities for all citizens.

Eric W. Kaler is president of the University of Minnesota. Kaler is a member of both the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. Follow him on Twitter at @PrezKaler


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