Rural America: Another Casualty of Student Loan Debt?

Young people flocking to better pay in urban hubs is just another symptom of an over-indebtedness problem that requires modern solutions.

The term “rural brain drain” was popularized nearly a decade ago when two sociologists published a book documenting their experience living in Iowa. Their goal was to understand the exodus of a young, educated workforce from rural areas to urban hubs. Today there are many factors contributing to this population shift, among them deindustrialization, lack of high-paying jobs, and weak broadband connectivity. A Federal Reserve report published earlier this year brought to light another reason for this phenomenon that dozens of states are grappling with: student loan debt.

The student debt crisis made headlines in 2010 when student loan debt surpassed credit card debt in the United States, at a staggering $1.56 trillion today, student debt is growing much faster than mortgage debt (10.4 percent per year versus 0.6 percent for mortgages). According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, nearly two-thirds of this financial burden falls on Americans under the age of 39.

As young people are increasingly burdened by student debt, they are flocking to the places that offer high-paying jobs: cities. According to Pew Research, 88 percent of millennials live in metropolitan areas. The average age is higher in the Midwest and the Appalachians, regions that are struggling to keep pace with urban hubs in terms of broadband access, variety of jobs, quality of higher education institutions, and other success factors in today’s markets. As evidenced by the Fed’s report, individuals with student debt are less likely to remain in rural areas than those without debt. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of the students most burdened by debt leave rural areas within one year after entering repayment. The term for this migration pattern has been coined the “rural brain drain,” and its impacts on the economic vitality of these regions are increasingly apparent. The inability of rural areas to attract a young, educated workforce is deepening the rural-urban divide.

Young people are flocking to the places that offer high-paying jobs: cities.

Some may argue that widespread access to education loans has created better opportunities for younger populations all over. However, according to U.S. Census data, wages have been stagnant since the 1970s, while the average cost of public college tuition has increased almost four fold. Simultaneously, homeownership among those under 35 has dropped 10 percent since 2006, and birth rates have declined every year since 2007. People in the age groups we might expect to be buying homes, settling down, and raising the next generation cannot afford to do so.

Wages have been stagnant since the 1970s, while the average cost of public college tuition has increased almost four fold.

We often look to countries like Finland, Denmark, and Norway, which offer tuition-free college to their citizens, as paradigms of what could exist here at home. Which country has the best model for us to try to replicate? According to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, the answer is the United States. In post-war America, tuition fees were waved for veterans, and there was a massive proliferation of public universities. The GI Bill was one of the important factors that led to a tripling of the number of Americans with a bachelor’s degree from 1950 to 1977, and these educated workers helped the U.S. to grow to have the largest and most prosperous middle class in the world. At this time, public tuition was about 6 percent of an average male salary, compared to today’s 25 percent.

Times have changed, however, and modern problems require modern solutions. Refinancing and forbearance can provide some relief, but they ultimately increase debt in the form of interest. Other proposals to remedy the student debt crisis include erasing all debts, boosting the tax deduction for those making on-time payments, expanding the Pell grant program, creating a tiered system that lowers or eliminates debt based on income, and proper adherence to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The latter program was created in 2007 to forgive remaining student loan balances of those who have worked for 10 years in public service. In 2017 applicants first became eligible for relief through this program, which has a two-year budget of $700 million. However, as of April this year, only 1.5 percent of those funds have been utilized. While the requirements for forgiveness are publicly available, the Department of Education has come under fire for not providing clear guidance to successfully navigate them.

Some believe that a policy to eliminate all or most student debt would be a major economic stimulus, spurring job creation and narrowing the wealth gap over the next decade. Our recent history proves that a well-educated population fuels a virtuous cycle of growth through competitive wages, increased tax revenues, and expansion of jobs. An affordable education lies at the foundation of this cycle, and will be a key factor in creating a more economically inclusive rural and urban America.

Join the Conversation

Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter.