The EDA Center | at the University of Minnesota  
Commentaries on Greater Minnesota

Periodically we will present commentaries on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.


The Brain Gain in Rural Minnesota
April 2011
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.
Download PDF

As demographers see it, much of the history of the 20th Century in America can be described as a massive rural-to-urban migration. It was in fact this rural-to-urban migration, along with European immigration that provided the labor for the development of our great industrial economy. And after World War II as agricultural technology accelerated the displacement of labor with capital equipment, it freed up even more rural residents to move to urban locations and support the emerging service economy; and later the information economy.

Today, we seem to take it for granted that in most communities across rural Minnesota, a large percentage of the high school graduating class will leave town to go off to college or try to increase their economic life chances in more urban locations. And few places across Minnesota represent this trend more illustratively than the western tier of counties and specifically southwestern Minnesota. For it is here in southwestern Minnesota that the census documents county population decreases of up to 50 percent since 1960 (e.g., Traverse County); and where many of the counties recorded their peak census populations back in the 1930s and 1940's. Accordingly, for the majority of their current living residents, population decline is the only demographic trend that they have ever known. And given that it is typically the young folks who migrate to urban centers, many have labeled this chronic migration of youth as "The Brain Drain."

So my ears perked up when I read a recent report authored by University of Minnesota Extension Research Fellow Ben Winchester, who suggests that within this broad pattern of demographic decline, not all age cohorts are decreasing in size. And further, that there are some cohorts that are actually increasing in significant numbers that represent "A Brain Gain" for rural Minnesota. And yes, this pattern is even occurring in southwestern Minnesota.

Winchester's notion and evidence of a "Brain Gain" is really rather simple to understand. He uses the case of Grant County, MN as an example, where overall population losses of 32 percent have occurred since 1960. Here he suggests that similar to patterns in the past, in Grant County young people continue to migrate out in pursuit of higher education, better jobs and the lights and excitement of urban life. And the Census data seems to strongly support that contention, with significant population losses in the cohorts between 18-30 years of age. But using the same Census data, Winchester also documents substantive population gains in cohorts between the ages of 30-44, as well as between the ages of 10-14.

By now you may be asking what exactly accounted for this sizeable population gain in some selected age cohorts. Through the use of multiple focus groups among these newcomers, Winchester suggests that there are multiple reasons, but one of the primary factors is the desire of those who left a rural community in their late teens and early 20's to return to their home region a decade or so later. Not surprisingly, now with a spouse and children in tow, many of these former rural residents want their children to experience the good schools, as well as the safe and supportive environment that they had growing up. And it is the presence of these returning newcomers' children that leads to the gains in the 10-14 age cohort.

Winchester also notes what he labels as "push factors" for many of these rural newcomers; these being the high cost of living in urban areas, congestion, along with the long commuting times that led them to seek a more rural lifestyle for themselves and their family. And somewhat interestingly, several of these newcomers cited their desire and the opportunity to start their own business as a reason to move to a rural community. But most interestingly, these factors were just as important for newcomers who never previously lived in a rural community as it was for the former rural residents.

In looking closely at Winchester's study two main thoughts come to mind. First, is that if this demographic Brain Gain is occurring in Grant County MN, it is likely occurring in your county as well. Second, while economic development professionals spend a great deal of time strategizing on how to attract new businesses, I seldom hear enough about well thought-out and focused strategies to attract and retain these newcomers that represent this Brain Gain for rural Minnesota. Winchester not only suggests some targeted strategies that rural regions may want to consider, but he even includes an abbreviated economic impact analysis of the 52 newcomers he interviewed for his study. The results may be surprising to some economic development professionals.

Interested? A copy of the results of Winchester's focus group research can be viewed and downloaded at

Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at

This document was prepared by the University of Minnesota, Crookston under award number 06-66-05709 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.