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Itasca County brain gain

More to the story

Itasca County, like much of rural Minnesota, sees “brain gain”


For some, the perception of rural Minnesota – indeed of rural America –is of decline and stagnation: abandoned farmsteads, boarded storefronts, shuttered schoolhouses. Books proclaim a “brain drain” and the demise of rural America when young adults leave.

But Ben Winchester, University of Minnesota Extension rural sociologist and author of a recent study, has noticed another chapter to this story: mid-career professionals who move to rural places, bringing with them educational achievements, established earning power, and creating a “brain gain” for rural areas. In his latest report, “Continuing the Trend: The Brain Gain of the Newcomers,” Winchester updates population shifts using 2010 Census data, and examines the trend at the national level. The study also shows the brain gain continued across the rural Midwest, but at a slower pace than from 1990 to 2000.

Itasca area – strong growth,young families

In Itasca County, the “brain gain” trend is evident across different ages between 2000 and 2010. The data compares age groups with the size of that same group 10 years ago (when they were ten years younger). There is a “brain drain” when young adults (20-24 and 25-29) migrate away after high school graduation. However,there are increases in all other age cohorts during the last decade.

Of particular note was a 22 percent increase in the cohort of middle-school age children, indicating that young families are moving to the area.

“It’s the rule that young people move to pursue educational and career goals, not the exception,” said Winchester. “Instead of labeling that loss as ‘doom and gloom’ for rural, I’ve examined the population trends more deeply. Acknowledging the brain gain allows rural places to focus on strengths and opportunities, which isthe work of any community striving for a brighter future.”

Rural rejuvenation

Other University of Minnesota Extension research on those in mid-career shows they choose rural areas for a higher quality of life, specifically citing a slower pace, the low cost of housing, and safety and security. These factors appeal not just to those who were raised in rural communities (like Grand Rapids native Lea Friesen) and want to return – they also attract folks who haven’t lived in small communities before.

These newcomers, according to Winchester, infuse richness and diversity into rural communities – and provide an important economic boost.

He found that these households contributed $92,000 (average per household) in economic activity to the region in 2009 and 2010. Other highlights of the study:

  • 75 percent of respondents moved with their spouse/partner, and 25 percent moved alone.
  • 51 percent moved with children.
  • 43 percent of respondents lived in or near their community before returning;30 percent of their spouses lived in or near the community.
  • In their previous community, 36 percent held a leadership role in a community, church, school, civic, or other type of group or organization. This rose to 60 percent in their new community.
  • In their previous community, 62 percent donated money to local community organizations, charities or causes.This rose to 81 percent in their new community.
  • 68 percent of respondents had a bachelor’s degree or higher; 19 percent had an associate’s degree.

“In rural areas, little changes make a big difference,” Winchester said. “And these numbers certainly change the story.”

To access the study (in PDF format), visit To learn more about the brain gain in rural Minnesota, visit

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