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Iowa State 'brain gain' study: What brings people back to small towns after college

Researchers found a common thread that could explain why some Iowans return to their hometowns after college, while others don't.

AMES, Iowa — For Iowans from small, rural towns there are two options after high school—stay put or leave for college.

A team of Iowa State University researchers led by Stephanie Sowl is studying what makes the ones who choose the latter option come back down the gravel road later on.

'We noticed that there's a focus on why people never return to rural communities, and really paint morality and rural areas as like outdated, closed-minded, stagnant," Sowl said. "So we really wanted to reframe the narrative."

The team conducted a secondary data analysis using Add Health, which was designed at UNC Chapel Hill as the most comprehensive longitudinal study of adolescents.

The team started by looking at 7th-12th grade kids at Wave I, which was the 1994-1995 school year. They focused on neighborhood, family and school characteristics.

From there, researchers analyzed how those factors related to returning home in Wave V. Wave V was from 2016 to 2018, meaning that group of kids was then between the ages of 34 to 43. The team specifically looked at kids from rural areas who went on to receive a bachelor's degree from a college at least 50 miles away from their hometown.

They found a positive experience in grade school had a big impact on willingness to return home.

"That was measured by asking students if they felt close to people at their school, if they felt that they were part of the school, if they're happy to be there, if they felt safe, if they felt that teachers cared about them," Sowl said. "So the higher students scored on that, the more likely they were to return home."

Kate Olson, the ISU extension director for Cass County, said field trips at her rural elementary school affected her choice to come home after college.

"Our teachers did an excellent job of just getting us out in the community, I guess that's something else about growing up in the community is, people are so supportive of local schools," Olson said. "So we were always doing field trips to the courthouses and the local parks... They do a really good job of making sure that kids feel like they belong in their local communities."

Atlantic Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bailey Smith was hesitant about moving home, but she wanted to help the town grow.

"I think of all the reasons why I didn't want to move back to my hometown," Smith said. "And then I sit and think of what I could do as an individual to make it better than when I left and make it a place that I want to live in."

Sowl is thinking about future research projects like comparing trends at different times and parts of the communities to see how and why they developed.

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