The independent student news publication at Kansas State University

Kansas State Collegian

Kansas State Collegian

The independent student news publication at Kansas State University

Kansas State Collegian

Outmigration in Kansas threatens rural towns

Studies find students from small towns often don’t return post-graduation
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Many+K-State+students+from+rural+communities+dont+return+to+their+small+hometowns+post-graduation.+This+phenomenon%2C+known+as+outmigration+is+because+of+a+lack+of+job+opportunities+in+rural+towns+%28Archive+Photo+By+Madeline+Emerson+%7C+Collegian+Media+Group%29
Many K-State students from rural communities don’t return to their small hometowns post-graduation. This phenomenon, known as “outmigration” is because of a lack of job opportunities in rural towns (Archive Photo By Madeline Emerson | Collegian Media Group)

Thousands of students flood to Kansas State’s campus from smaller rural hometowns with no expectation to return. Larger, competitive cities brimming with opportunity pull many graduates away.

“Rural youth outmigration could be an existential threat for some communities,” Landon Ochsner, graduate in natural resource and environmental science, said. “Outmigration of college-educated young people leads to the town having an older population and a lack of young people to fill roles once older adults age out of the workforce. This could significantly impact the socioeconomic future of these communities.”

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research assessed college-specific labor markets for graduates. Among the 50 states, Kansas ranked fifth-worst in overall retention of college graduates. In metro areas, 50% of graduates stay, but the state loses 47.2% more college graduates than it gains. This trend is attributed to the lack of job opportunities in numerous smaller towns, leading to outmigration. 

“The opportunities in urban areas far outweigh the opportunities in rural areas,” Dalyn Schwarz, junior in biomedical engineering, said. “That may be in terms of pay, opportunity or simply the idea of moving away from home and experiencing the world. As a biomedical engineer, the jobs offered in my hometown are very limited, whereas an area such as Kansas City has multiple companies centered there, each with multiple job openings and a lot more potential to grow. That is why I think many engineering students favor larger cities as opposed to their rural hometowns.” 

My goal is to find an engineering position in the Kansas City area,” Allison Kirby, junior in industrial and manufacturing systems, said. “Though I appreciate my hometown, I am not looking to move back for a few reasons. There are no industrial engineering opportunities in my rural area, and I am more interested in living in a large town with greater access to resources. I believe the benefit of living in a city or suburb is stronger for me due to greater access to high-quality groceries, access to technology services and the importance of diversity.”

Students looking for opportunities in bigger cities affect companies looking for hires in smaller towns. 

I am seeing students from rural Kansas attending college and, upon graduation, moving to larger cities like Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka, etc., where opportunities are more plentiful, and compensation is better,” David Vermetten, Kaw Valley Engineering project manager, said. “I have subsequently shut down my own structural engineering firm [VMT Engineering PA] and took a position with Kaw Valley Engineering out of Junction City, Kansas. My two employees moved on to bigger and better opportunities outside the Manhattan area. Finding structural engineering graduates or engineers for that matter that want to put down roots in and around the Manhattan area is difficult at best.”

A student-led natural resources and environmental sciences group of K-State undergraduates is researching the causes of this issue. Sarah Jackson, teaching assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture and Natural Resources, leads this effort. 

“Overall, I am serving as a supporter for this team and helping guide them through a meaningful endeavor that was uniquely designed through proactive, engaging discussions, facilitated by their own passions,” Jackson said. 

Looking at outmigration numbers and analyzing trends allows the students to evaluate information.

“The research project evaluates the social, economic and environmental factors that may contribute to people’s decision to leave their small towns after college,” Ochsner said. “It is done in completion of our natural resources and environmental science secondary major, but I think we all have some experience with friends or family making the decision to leave their communities after they graduate. We landed on this topic because we realized the existential threat that this phenomenon creates for so many small towns across Kansas.” 

Building on the knowledge communities and graduates have about this issue can affect future decisions. 

“I do know that there are federal programs that encourage educators and healthcare professionals to work in rural communities, and some small towns offer housing or cash incentives for college educated people to live and work there,” Ochsner said.

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