Custer County has experienced a brain gain in the last 40 years, joining the rest of the country in what has been a massive increase in the number of adults who have earned college degrees.
In 1970, 5.5 percent of those over 25 years of age had college degrees in Custer County. By 2010, 18 percent of adults here had completed college.
The percentage of adults with college degrees in Custer County was less than the national average of 27.9 percent in 2010. The college-educated rate here was less than the Nebraska average of 27.7 percent.
The number of adults in the United States with college degrees has nearly tripled since 1970, when only 10.7 percent of adults had graduated from college. But the percentage of adults with degrees in rural counties, such as Custer County, while increasing, has generally fallen behind the proportion of college-educated residents in urban counties.
The loss of young, well-educated residents has posed a long-standing difficulty for rural communities.
"One of the problems that rural areas face is that in order to get a college education, young people often have to leave," says Judith Stallmann, an economist at the University of Missouri. "Once you leave, that introduces you to other opportunities that you might not have seen had you not left."
The good news for rural America is that it has caught up in every other measure of education. In 1970, 7.8 percent of adults in rural counties had some education after high school, but less than a college degree.
By 2010, 27.4 percent of rural adults had attained some post high school education without earning a college diploma. That level of education was close to the national average of 28.1 percent.
In Custer County, 12.7 percent of adults had some college in 1970, rising to 34.6 percent in 2010. The Nebraska average in 2010 was 32.7 percent. Custer County had 8,634 adults (those over 25 years of age) in 1970 and 7,673 adults in 2010.
Overall, Stallmann says, the trends show that "rural people have responded to the demand for increased job skills by the increasing their post secondary education."
Only 9.3 percent of the adult population in Custer County had failed to graduate from high school in 2010. Nationally 15 percent of adults had not completed high school; in Nebraska, the rate was 10.0 percent.
Mark Partridge, a rural economist at Ohio State University, says that regional differences in college graduation rates have increased in recent years. Partridge said his studies have found that rural counties and counties with small cities in the South and West didn't fare as well as those in the Midwest and Northeast in attracting college graduates. Even though the Sunbelt has seen tremendous growth over the past few decades, the South's rural counties haven't kept up in terms of attracting adults with college degrees.
But the problem of keeping college graduates in rural America is a national issue and one that is also enduring. Missouri economist Stallmann said this is a reflection of the kinds of jobs that are generally available in rural communities. If there are fewer jobs demanding college degrees in a community, there are likely to be fewer college graduates.
"It's a big deal in a lot of rural counties because you don't see a lot of jobs that require a college education," Stallmann said. Young people graduating from high school don't see many jobs that demand a college diploma, so they don't think about coming home once they leave for the university.
There can be a "self-reinforcing cycle" in rural communities, Stallmann said - young people leave to gain higher education, they don't come back after college because there aren't jobs that demand such education, and their absence diminishes the chances that more of these kinds of jobs will be created.
Nationally, rural counties and counties with small cities have caught up with urban counties in the percentage of adults who have some post high school education. Stallmann sees this as a sign that "there are perhaps more jobs in rural areas that require post secondary education but not college."
Both Stallmann and Partridge said the data on college education rates told them that rural communities should consider the kind of jobs being created locally.
"Rural communities may need to think about the types of jobs" being created, Stallmann said. "There are some communities that are doing things like getting local businesses to put an emphasis on hiring local kids who got a college education."
"It really suggests that rural communities that aren't thinking about making themselves attractive to educated people are really going to suffer," Partridge said.
*This article was written by Bill Bishop, co-editor of the Daily Yonder (www.dailyyonder.com), an online news publication covering rural America that is published by the Center for Rural Strategies, and Roberto Gallardo, an assistant extension professor at the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University. It is provided courtesy of Daily Yonder.