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Newcomers mean 'brain gain' for rural Minnesota

A self-proclaimed "small-town guy," Extension research fellow Ben Winchester listens to the reasons a young family chose to move from the city to a smaller, rural community.

The perception of rural America is often one of stagnation and decline. High school graduates flee their small towns for college or to jump-start exciting careers, never to return.

Despite the loss of the twentysomethings, Extension research fellow Ben Winchester doesn't see doom and gloom for rural America, and he has the numbers to prove it.

Through careful analysis of 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census data, Winchester has uncovered another rural migration trend: growth among 30- to 44-year-olds. He calls this addition of middle-agers, who bring with them educational achievements and established earning power, the "brain gain" of the newcomers.

"Rural communities appear to be exchanging high school graduates for residents with bachelor's degrees, careers, professional networks and children," says Winchester, who has published studies about the trend and led research to learn more about these new residents.

In Minnesota, 94 percent of rural counties experienced growth in the 35- to 44-year-old age group between 1990 and 2000. That trend continued through 2010 at a rate slightly below that of the 2000 Census, according to Winchester.

"People are making lifestyle, quality-of-life decisions," he notes. "The top three reasons they give for making the move are a slower pace of life, the low cost of housing, and safety and security."

Winchester hopes his research helps community leaders reach out to newcomers who are part of this demographic.

"It's the rule that young people leave, not the exception," Winchester says. "What rural communities can do is focus on becoming a place to move to once those young people have gained their education and expertise."

To learn more about Winchester's research, visit Brain gain in rural Minnesota.

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