Give Them Every Reason to Move Back Home

Updated: Nov 4, 2021



It often appears to our young people that there are few exciting career opportunities in small towns and rural areas. Many students and parents believe the myth that moving away is the only way to achieve high incomes, opportunities for advancement, or to experience leisure activities and entertainment. Is it any wonder that out-migration of our young people has become a major challenge to the future of rural America?

If we want to grow our small towns and rural communities we should make it easy for young people to learn about exciting careers close to home. Let’s provide them with workbased learning opportunities to experience those careers for themselves. And finally, let’s develop ways to stay in touch after high school so that whether they go to a four-year university, a community college, or to a job, they know they’re valued and can have a bright future here at home.


We believe small towns and rural America will most effectively reduce the export of our young and more reliably improve rural prosperity by acquainting hometown students with the wide variety of career opportunities that exist close to their long-established relationships with family, friends and the community.

Like many areas in rural America, communities and counties in Iowa are either staying the same size but aging or losing population. Out-migration is a primary cause of rural America’s failure to grow and thrive. The pattern of out-migration is most pronounced in the 18-24 year-olds who don’t return after leaving their home communities for post-secondary education.

Many states and communities are striving to address this problem of out-migration among their young people by encouraging young professionals to move back home after they have acquired advanced training, specialized degrees, or have already entered the workforce. Experts like Ben Winchester, a University of Minnesota extension educator and rural researcher, and others recommend this approach.

We believe a far more effective strategy is to engage all secondary students in exploring opportunities in their home communities or within commuting distance (including remote work opportunities) and begin active engagement with those students several years before high school graduation. We also propose that the most effective programs of active engagement of those students choosing post-secondary educational opportunities will continue during the years of their training or education.


Successfully enticing young professionals to move back after establishing themselves in another community is a low-probability wager. Settling into life means establishing new relationships with friends and partners and means acquiring new habits and likes; a run along the lake, a stop at a local coffee shop on the way to work, and exploring new dining and entertainment opportunities. With time, personal relationships may mean raising children who develop strong relationships with playmates and schools. Adult relationships in a community aren’t just interpersonal; they also mean establishing a professional reputation with employers and industry circles.

The progression of connection and involvement means moving back to a small town or rural area becomes increasingly complex and less likely. The best strategy is to remain engaged with students during their high school career and for the six years following graduation.


Students graduating from post-secondary education stay closer to home than you might guess. Research conducted by the data firm EMSI in conjunction with the Wall Street Journal shows that most students stay close to the college of their choice after graduation. Because most students from rural America choose state universities or nearby community colleges, there is an excellent opportunity to repatriate these students or entice non-hometown students to choose your community.

It’s also clear that home communities can have an advantage because most students choose from among a shortlist of just five communities within their home state when choosing where to start their career. Instead of competing with attractive states and cities a long way from home, rural communities are more frequently competing against a much smaller list of potential communities close to the student’s hometown and similar in size and composition.


The chart above and the infographics on the next page illustrate a EMSI study in conjunction with the Wall Street Journal.

“The vast majority of community college alumni stay within their school’s county or neighboring counties. This makes community-serving institutions very compelling from an economic and workforce development point-of-view.”

How Your School Affects Where You Live, a EMSI study in conjunction with the Wall Street Journal.

“State universities directly partner with local employers and build educational programs and pathways to promote inroads to regional jobs and opportunities. Consequently, they appeal to students from the state, and many of the grads stay within state lines.”

How Your School Affects Where You Live, a EMSI study in conjunction with the Wall Street Journal.


As marketing professionals, we know that effective communication relies on creatively and repetitively reaching the target audience through the media they’re currently using. Success in those media depends on reaching out in age-appropriate and media-appropriate ways. What this means, for example, is that at present, Instagram and Snapchat will reach the youngest cohort of the target audience, but that they will migrate to new platforms through their early 20’s. The messages for a 16-year-old will be very different through Instagram than a message to a college senior on TikTok, let alone on LinkedIn.

The goal of the strategy should be to acquaint secondary students with workbased learning opportunities in the local area and create a network of working-age adults in a wide variety of industries who are willing to respond to requests for advice, information, and advanced internship opportunities.

The strategy should involve outreach sustained for two to three years before graduating from high school and as many as six years after.


The effort to reduce the loss of young students can start with any business or organization, but a well-balanced team working on the project could include representatives from a wide array of backgrounds and career choices:

• Financial Institutions

• Local Chamber of Commerce

• Legal Professions

• Workbased Learning

• Medical Professions

• Marketing Professionals

• Skilled Trades

• Major Employers

• Education

• Local Government

• County or Regional Economic Development

The purpose of having a team including a wide variety of backgrounds is to harness all available community resources. Marketing professionals are needed to guide the selection and use of media appropriate to each age cohort making up the target audience. The program will also need a budget sufficient to sustain the program, and reaching out to prospective team members is a great way to secure the resources you need.


Our research has uncovered a long list of creative things communities do to influence young people’s decisions. All these ideas are interesting, but none we’ve seen have included a sustained effort during the last few years of high school. One outreach to a student heading off for post-secondary education won’t have the desired impact if it has any impact at all.

The plan goals should be to acquaint every high school student with the opportunities in or within commuting distance of the student’s home community, to remain in touch with and offer a network of local advisors to post-secondary students, and to provide those in the later years of the marketing plan with information about careers, real estate, schools, and all the factors leading people to choose a permanent place of residence.


There’s no need to wait ten years to measure the program’s success. Annual surveys of secondary students will indicate positive changes in attitudes about local and regional career opportunities as students progress toward graduation. Keeping contact information updated and maintaining continued contact throughout the program is another early indicator of success.

More direct measures can include information supplied by local real estate agents, new movers lists from data companies, and local employer surveys.


Professionals with families do leave the coasts and urban centers to return home to small towns and rural communities. There are homegrown doctors, other professionals, and new business startups by adults returning home. But every story of the returning native son or daughter is overwhelmed by the stories of scores if not hundreds who leave and never return.

We can most effectively increase the number of young people choosing our rural community by focusing on every student, not just those at the top of the academic mountain.

We believe it’s possible to create a program to reach students during high school and beyond and influence choices for their future that will benefit them and their home communities or region.