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Series Explores Rural Brain Drain Through Eyes of Students

The desire for more opportunity coupled with waning economic prospects are just a few of the factors that play into the rural brain drain, as chronicled in the first part of a new series of articles in The Southern Illinoisan.  

The series dives into the lives of four recent high school graduates to explore the nuanced personal, cultural, and economic issues that influence the decision among rural youths to stay close to home or leave. In the series, which will follow these graduates during the next few months, two of the students are staying in rural Illinois while the other two are leaving to attend college.

For one student, the desire to leave was influenced by her goal to become a pediatric nurse. Her rural hometown of Galatia has no pediatrician's office or children's hospital. "I'm kind of being forced to leave to be able to be successful in the way I want," the student said in the article. Another student, the high school valedictorian, said she has been encouraged by educators to "reach higher" and leave for a larger school and community.

For the two students who plan to stay in their hometowns, the decision was motivated by the allure of a familiar community. Those students will pursue careers in local industries that either don't require higher education, like mining, or in health-related fields that are offered by local community colleges.

Nearly 58 percent of school districts in Illinois are small and rural, but only about 13 percent of students in the state attend these schools. According to the Rural School and Community Trust, more than 27 percent of rural students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The rural brain drain has long been a concern nationwide, as many rural areas have seen their brightest students leave to pursue higher education or economic opportunity. Some schools have attempted to mitigate this by better preparing and encouraging students to work in local industries. Some higher education institutions, like Sam Houston State University in Texas, have tried to fight rural brain drain  by working with rural students to educate them on opportunities available in their communities.

The Southern Illinoisan will publish the remaining parts of the series later this year.

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