Is ‘brain drain’ inaccurate? New study reveals reality of ‘rural return’

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Photo by Shawn Poynter

Thanks to slews of media reports, academic studies and political speeches about the ills of Appalachia, we’ve all heard of what is supposedly one of our region’s more insidious ills: “brain drain.” It’s the idea that all of Appalachia’s “best and brightest” young people spend their entire lives itching to leave the region, and when they finally get the chance, they leave and never return. In the long list of reasons given for why Central Appalachia is lagging behind the rest of the country, “brain drain” is almost always mentioned near the top.

Folks have believed in the “brain drain” theory for decades. In fact, if you were to sit in on any given meeting about how we transition Appalachia’s economy into the future, mitigating “brain drain” will almost assuredly be mentioned.

But new research published this month in the American Educational Research Journal (and reported on by our friends at the Daily Yonder) suggests what we’ve seen evidence of for that last several years – “brain drain” is not really happening in the way most everyone suspects:

The study . . . reveals that high-achieving high school students are not necessarily more likely to leave a rural community than students who aren’t as interested in academics. And of those students who do leave, high-achievers are more likely to indicate a desire to return. This desire to return home is linked to high-achievers’ stronger feelings of community engagement and connection.

Some of the study’s other key findings include:

  • Young men are more likely to stay than leave (51 percent), and young women are more likely to leave than stay (58 percent). This is likely because of “the gendered structure of opportunity in rural communities.”
  • There is “little evidence for the assertion that teachers and school administrators contribute to brain drain by ‘grooming’ their best students to leave.”

We cannot deny or ignore the fact that young people are leaving the region. Year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, Appalachian youth continue the persistent refrain of, “I can’t wait to leave this place.” Many of them do, and some of those do not return. The economic reality of our place plays a huge role in whether or not a young person leaves, stays or returns. In this new study, perception about local economic opportunities is the largest factor that influences a young person’s location decision.

However, this study also reveals that rural young people who chose to leave their hometowns are also the most likely to come back, something it refers to as “rural return:”

. . . certain factors (family structure, connections to a farming lifestyle, living in one place for most or all of one’s life, and an all-around deep attachment to a rural community) have strong influences on students’ aspirations to return home after leaving.

In particular, high-achieving students who have thrived in and benefited from life in a rural community are more likely to feel connected to it. Thus, these students are more likely to express a desire to return home than their nonacademic counterparts.

Based on this research, and based on empirical knowledge about pockets of young people throughout the region who are making lives for themselves and helping to transition the region’s economy forward, it is high time we change the “Appalachian brain drain” narrative. The theory is simply faulty, and it’s insulting to those “best and brightest” youth who chose to stay. Young people do still leave the mountains, as they leave rural places all over the country; but, they do not leave in droves, as conventional wisdom would have us believe, and quite a bit of those who do leave actually return.

Aside from insultingly assuming that the region is losing all of its most promising youth to cities and far away places, the “brain drain” narrative gives the false impression that the youth who do leave have no desire to return, and that even if they do, they won’t. Appalachia’s young may leave the hills to live and work elsewhere, and some of them may not return. But what is often overlooked is that due north on the hearts of most young Appalachians always points toward the mountains, leading many who leave for a time back home again to stay.

These stories from participants in this year’s Annual STAY (Stay Together Appalachian Youth) Project Summer Institute reveal this truth, and very clearly support the research in the rural youth migration study. From Chattanooga, Tenn.’s Ash-Lee Henderson:

If you would have asked me that question back in 2003, I would have probably been like, “I’m out, I’m leaving.”. . . . Now, looking back ten years later I am sure I will be buried in these hills. I think that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. I think that’s exactly where I’m meant to be.

A common theme among Appalachian young people who are hitching up their wagons and heading back home is they just can’t find any other place they would rather be. Appalachian Transition Fellow Willa Johnson calls it the “Appalachian Love Story:”

It is a love story for sure. One that even when it hurts, there’s something still so beautiful about it that you hang on because you know that no other love will ever be as intense as this one.

Pennington Gap native Rance Garrison says it this way:

People tell me all the time that I would be best off leaving this place, this whole general region, but roots are roots, and many times in this modern world, we have a tendency to lose touch with those roots. In doing so, we lose a part of who we are, a part of our identity, part of the uniqueness of our human experience. We lose touch with something that is fundamentally real and important. We lose touch with ourselves.

I am determined to spend my life fighting for this region in whatever way I can. Because it’s worth fighting for.

I would wager that Central Appalachia is at the start of a very real “brain gain.” It’s been happening for several years, actually, and has only accelerated with the beginning of the region’s renaissance. More young Appalachians than ever are returning home – and more non-native young people are setting down roots in the region every day – to be a part of what they’ve wanted to see for maybe as long as they can remember: Appalachia’s transition to a brighter future. I, in fact, am one of them.

They are well aware of the region’s challenges – many have been intimately affected by those challenges in some way, myself included. But, they are also full of hope, vision, desire and determination to turn those challenges into opportunities, and to build upon the region’s many homegrown assets to create a brighter future.

Our leaders should pay more attention to this in-migration. They should fully embrace it and they should listen more whole-heartedly to what we, the young people of Appalachia, are telling them about the future we want to see. Our desire to transition this place is not a fleeting fancy of the young; it is a deep dedication to help our home reach its full potential – a tremendous amount of potential we can see and feel and touch and taste, and that we are completely confident we can fully realize.

If the people of Appalachia are its greatest asset, its young people – those who are a part of the great rural return, those who never left, and those from other places who want to be a part of the region’s rebirth – are most definitely the driving energy of that asset. Let us strive to harness that energy for the sake of our region’s future.