Study looks at how to prevent 'brain-drain' in rural communities

Study looks at how to prevent 'brain-drain' in rural communities


Rural communities across Wisconsin are of special interest in a new study completed by University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Extension researchers.

Rural communities often experience acute aging populations, school closings, declining downtowns and other signs that youth out-migration and brain drain are real issues. Those communities that lose too much of their younger population are in danger of becoming unsustainable, threatening the rural backbone for regional family farming and family resort communities.

From fall of 2016 to summer of 2017 researchers conducted interviews in 12 case-study communities that were gaining and maintaining young adults, representing all regions of the state, to learn why people thought young adult populations were stronger in those places. In this project they focused on local municipalities, identifying local communities that stand out as gaining or retaining young people without the presence of an obvious factor such as a major industrial plant or large university, and then analyzing the combination of factors that helped those outliers gain or retain young people.

They ultimately decided to define young adult as someone between 20 and 39. This was partly because of the structure of our data (they broke that age range into five-year cohorts) and because they wanted to limit the influence of college and university populations (they took other steps to limit that influence as well).

They went up to age 39 based on wide-ranging discussions with credentialed and experiential experts, justifying that upper range as still having a strong focus on the parenting of young children.

But there is variation and complexity in rural age demographic transition and the related “brain drain” phenomena. For instance, rural areas farthest from metropolitan centers may fare worse in terms of brain drain. Many rural communities may lose young people during their college years, but gain them back as young adults marry and begin raising children. Quality of life amenities such as high-speed internet service may also attract young people.

Loss of youth and brain drain are also not necessarily the same thing. Marginalized youth may find themselves stuck in place with relatively limited access to economic and civic community life. They contribute to a statistical youth gain but less to brain gain in the sense of a formally educated and credentialed population. Likewise, expensive amenity rich rural areas may attract retirees, producing a statistical brain gain but proportional youth decline.

Study implications

Maintaining high-quality schools is essential for attracting and maintaining young adult populations.

Different communities need to provide different mixes of housing for different families at different life cycle stages.

Public outdoor amenities for a diversity of recreation activities will be valued by young adults.

Rural and small town development may be tied together with urban development.

Communities need to address the tensions created by the need for volunteerism to maintain the small town feel, while people spend large amounts of time in cities for jobs, entertainment and shopping.

Universities and colleges may influence not just their home city, but also the region as a place for graduates to settle.

Read detailed analysis, view case studies and consider urban-rural connections at

Amy Greil is community, natural resource and economic development educator for the Kenosha County University of Wisconsin-Extension.


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