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Will Nebraska come out ahead?

Nebraska is a large and diverse state. Our public schools have an enrollment of over 300,000 students with a graduation rate of approximately 91 percent. Nebraska schools are doing an outstanding job of educating our youth, but we should also be developing strategies that assist in retaining or attracting students to our micropolitan or rural counties. With the average statewide cost per student at $11,365 annually in the 2014-2015 school year, we should look to innovative ideas to keep students in our rural and micropolitan areas and capture a return on our investment.

In a 2009 book titled, “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America,” the authors Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas outline the challenges faced by many small towns in the heartland. They moved to Ellis, Iowa to study what was happening in rural America and they found there were typically four types of students who were graduating from public schools.

Achievers are ambitious college-bound and often leave a community for good

Seekers head off to war or to see the world

Returners eventually return to their hometowns

Stayers try to survive in the agricultural and industrial economy

Micropolitan and rural Nebraska educators have done such a great job developing students, but we continue to see a large number of “Achievers” and “Seekers” move away from our communities with little likelihood of them returning. While we have seen overall net in-migration in Nebraska since the recession, we will likely continue to see flat to negative population growth in many counties throughout the state. To help increase growth, Nebraska needs to invest in growing the students that become the “Stayers” and do more marketing to the “Returners.”

We have seen much better investment in the “Stayers” over the past several years. A focus on career clusters through career pathway programs in our schools is beginning to positively impact talent gaps in communities. According to the Nebraska Department of Education, this focus on career technical education delivers graduation rates of around 99 percent for those enrolled in the programs, with 97 percent of participants being placed in post-secondary education or advanced training, military service or employment. Continuing to advance these career programs through partnerships and increased funding will be essential in developing enough students to fill upcoming vacant positions in high skill and high wage positions in our communities.

While career paths may be a way to keep talent in our communities directly after high school or after post-secondary education, we also must focus on attracting the “Returners” to come back to our communities. Local businesses must focus on a way to operate in a global economy, which will provide jobs. Communities must focus on ways to make starting a business easier. Local leaders must continue to invest in our already outstanding quality-of-life opportunities we enjoy in Nebraska to make it more attractive to young professionals or entrepreneurs. Finally, we need to market our employment opportunities, entrepreneurial networks and quality-of-life opportunities to the “Returners.”

We have a lot to be proud of in Nebraska. We have invested in and developed well-educated professionals that positively impact the state, the country and the world. But, we must also be mindful of our need to keep them or attract them back to our communities. With a statewide median disposable income of $41,498, we truly see a return on our educational investment in our communities with every “Stayer” and “Returner” we can attract to rural and micropolitan areas of our state.

About the Author

Dr. Corey Stutte
CEO, Strategic Pioneer

Dr, Stutte, CEO of Strategic Pioneer, is a sixth generation Nebraska who lives in Hastings with his wife. He also serves on the Hastings Public Schools Board of Education. 


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