A new study from the Rural Sociology Society (RSS) in the United States has stumbled on interesting data on those returning to rural northeast regions in the country.

The new findings show university graduates between 34 and 43 years of age are more likely to return to rural communities where they grew up if they have strong attachment to their primary age school. Feeling like their teachers cared for them or that they were part of a close-knit community and had close friends were significant drivers of those returning to their rural regions. FERN’s work in Europe also suggests that this research is likely to apply to several locations outside the US and Canada.

“In other rural areas, despite a desire to remain close to family and friends, concerns regarding the lack of career opportunities for those with college degrees are prevalent,” the document reads.

School numbers make the difference

When examining high school characteristics, US researchers found the size of the school also made a difference in returning rates, participants who attended high schools with more than 350 students at the time they went were 74% less likely to return home than participants who attended a school with fewer than 125 students.

“Rural youth who build stronger social ties, feel valued, and experience a sense of belonging are less likely to want to leave or more likely to return,” it added.

“We often hear that rural schools aren’t as good as their urban counterparts, but here is an example where they are in a unique position to foster strong relationships and a sense of belonging, which can have long-term impacts,” Route Fifty reported citing the research author Stephanie Sowl, a PhD candidate in higher education at Iowa State University.

The report she pens also adds men who had degrees in forestry/agriculture and women with degrees in education were more likely to return to their rural homes than any other major largely because of the local labour market.

This is a likely response to the situation which they grew up in but also highlights that communities are still very dependant on the existing industries in the rural regions rather than ways to drive new business.

As in Europe, research suggests that those in the target group who were interested in moving home wanted good schools, affordable housing, and open space being some of the key requirements to move to rural locations.

It also noted that looking to care for elderly relatives or taking over a family farm could affect the decision to move back.

US researchers emphasized understanding why people leave rural areas and what prompts their return could help promote a reverse brain drain and support revitalisation of those areas.

Researchers said their findings underscored the importance of investing in primary schools and opportunities to foster a sense of belonging in the youth. The researchers also suggested schools and community partners introduce youth to careers more localised to the area so they are aware of opportunities later in life.

“Rural communities have a lot of assets that are hidden from the broader public. It’s important for all of us to look at those assets and understand how communities can draw people back home to create thriving, more equitable communities,” Sowl says.