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America’s rural areas, small towns, and mid-sized cities are losing their smartest, most talented young people. What can foundations do to help keep talent, ambition, and energy at home?

As recent books like Hollowing Out the Middle have made abundantly clear, America's rural areas, small towns, and mid-sized cities located away from today's "superstar cities" and "means metros" (to use Richard Florida's terminology) are losing their smartest, most talented, most ambitious young people. And they have been for some time. This is the downside of the highly mobile, extraordinarily meritocratic society that America has become. Theorists like Florida celebrate the new segregation of the smart and upwardly mobile from mere commoners, but thinkers like Christopher Lasch and Bill Kauffman have argued cogently that this is not a trend that augurs well for democracy or community.

Thus, I was happy to learn from Patrick Deneen, a while back, about a philanthropic initiative in Pennsylvania's coal country. There, in the economically depressed area of Tamaqua, two local foundations have provided extremely generous scholarships for local students to attend local colleges and universities.  The result has been that dramatically fewer kids have decided to pick up roots, never to return, and the scholarship opportunities have even led to some families relocating to the area for their children's high school years.

Needless to say, these kinds of efforts could be taken much further. What if a local foundation decided to help pay off local students' college loans, if they were to return to their hometown areas after graduation? Such a program would have to be designed with care, in order to avoid creating disincentives for colleges to give financial aid or to keep tuition low (in other words, if it were to have the same effect as the ridiculous federal student-loan programs, then we're better off without it). But this could be an especially attractive option for the brightest of local kids who amass considerable debt attending liberal arts schools.

In any case, foundations committed to helping a particular area flourish need to start thinking about how to help keep talent, ambition, and energy at home. A wide dispersal of talent and intelligence is as necessary as the Jeffersonian ideal of a wide distribution of property ownership to the health of our country.  As Deneen writes:

Just these sorts of efforts could be the beginning of a virtuous circle, in which successful businessmen with a strong sense of place and gratitude for what they have inherited will encourage a similar ethic – including the encouragement to the creation of  small, local businesses – thus fostering a similar ethic in a new generation. This was historically the responsibility of the trustees of communities – to bring up the next generation to become good citizens and trustees, some of whom would become the leaders and exemplars of their communities.  At some point, they decided instead that the best thing they could do for their talented young people would be to encourage them to go away.

This new generation has been offered almost NO ALTERNATIVE to embracing a meritocratic, placeless, hyper-mobile, absentee economy and the itinerant “lifestyle” it requires.  These philanthropists may be a catalyst to a fundamental rethinking about what should be valued.   I hope more will pursue avenues to encourage this alternative, whether as a result of theory or practice.

1 thought on “Nudging them homeward”

  1. Seth says:

    I followed your “shameless plug” on FPR to this site, and now to this post, which hits quite close to home. I grew up in (and am now writing from) a small, rural community in southeastern Indiana.

    I (as well as my youngest sister) had the good fortune of being awarded the Eli Lilly Community Foundation award, which provides full tuition for four years at any university within the state of Indiana. Most private universities will provide free room & board to Lilly scholars, as well. Information on the program is here: http://www.lillyendowment.org/ed_csp.html

    It’s a wonderful program, and it’s provided the opportunity for students of modest means and rural backgrounds. And it’s designed to keep students in Indiana – if not in their original communities.

    And there’s the rub, of course – of all the Lilly scholars from my community, I’m confident that I am the only one who has returned to town for any length of time after graduation. . .and I’m preparing to leave for graduate school in the fall.

    In any case, I wanted to bring your attention to this particular program. The Lilly Foundation operates numerous other wonderful philanthropic programs in Indiana, which may be of interest to you and this new endeavor.

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