When Craig Schroeder returned to his rural Nebraska hometown in the 1980s, the economy was tight.
Farming operations were shrinking due to flagging market prices, and the need for other services was dwindling as well. In the 1980s, rural economies relied on the livelihood of farmers and their abilities to support other local businesses. Rural America, in a sense, was a world of its own.
That situation has changed significantly since then, and that has affected what possibilities are available for young people as they consider the path they want to follow after high school.
“You can do a lot of things from rural places you couldn’t 20 or 30 years ago,” said Schroeder, a senior fellow of New Generation Partnerships at the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship.
Rural communities are not as isolated as they were previously. Technology has made it possible for the spouse of someone returning home to work anywhere and to have access to more amenities.
The 21st-century ag economy has shifted, and so has the need for rural people to rely only on their neighbors for business success.
And Schroeder has found that a significant number of young people want to take advantage of these shifting economies while raising their children in the places where they grew up.
Surveys show a love of home
Over the past 10 years, 40,000 high school and junior high students in rural areas were surveyed about what would make them want to stay in their hometowns. Often, the number of students surveyed made up 80 percent of the student body at their schools. The survey asked about the students’ connections to their communities and factors that would make those places attractive.
Over half the students surveyed said they’d like to return to their hometown.
“That’s happened without a lot of adults being aware of it, because they haven’t been engaging young people because there was an assumption that they didn’t want to come back,” Schroeder said.
It’s up to the adults in these communities to help guide students, he added—developing their skills and capitalizing on close family connections and desire to raise a family in a safe environment with good schools. Students surveyed believe that’s possible in their hometowns, Schroeder said, which indicates an existing strong emotional tie to their communities.
“This is very much about an attraction and engagement strategy,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder thinks there’s been a shift in mindset to believe that if you grew up in a small community you might want to continue living in one. Some rural communities have seen a 25 percent increase in population.
It’s important for rural leaders to figure out what students want.
“What would make them want to stay?” Schroeder asked.
From his perspective, allowing students to have an impact on community decisions is an important step.
Youth need to tell the adult leaders in their hometowns what they want that community to be, Schroeder said.
“It’s important to make youth aware of these opportunities and train them in leadership and entrepreneurship, to give them an opportunity to direct the course of their communities,” he said.
His research developed three key interlocking concepts community members can use to develop youth:
- Entrepreneurial education and career development
- Youth involvement and leadership in the community
- Community support of youth enterprise.
“If young people are involved in improving their community it causes them to have a greater investment in their community,” Schroeder said.
Some students still want to leave at least for a time, and he thinks they should. Young people should have time away by going to college or experiencing a different place. But then they should return and bring that new knowledge with them.
The time and resources that communities invest in attraction and retention can pay off quickly because few people return to their hometown alone.
Schroeder is a good example. He returned to his hometown as a professional adult with his wife and children.
Those additional family members who move back with returners can be a huge asset to a community, Schroeder said.
Surveys of junior high and high school students over the past 10 years have found:
51% would return to live in their hometowns if opportunities for jobs were available.
64% indicated that no one in their towns had ever asked their opinion on what would make the community attractive.
43% indicated they thought their communities were good places to live. Many of those surveyed also indicated an interest in owning their own businesses and in learning from successful entrepreneurs in their area.
12% already did own their own business.
-Information from Craig Schroeder