A Publication of WTVP

Rural America has been increasingly “hollowed out” in recent decades as young people migrate to urban areas. Between 2000 and 2016, the rural population in Illinois dropped by over 81,000 residents, but the decline was even greater for young people. More than 157,000 residents under the age of 44 left rural communities during this time—even as the population over age 44 increased by 76,000. That shift means lower levels of education and income in rural communities.

Despite this trend, rural communities shouldn’t be discouraged in their efforts to attract young people. In a 2017 presentation, Pam Schallhorn, community and economic development educator at the University of Illinois Extension, offered some perspective, citing a survey showing that 37 percent of millennials want to live in cities and 36 percent prefer the suburbs, while 23 percent say they do want to live in small towns or rural areas. They are more likely to move back to their hometowns after having their first child—due to the lower cost of living, proximity to family and friends, and other benefits—but small towns must do some work to recruit and retain them.

Schallhorn references the research of Craig Schroeder, director of youth engagement at the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship in Lincoln, Nebraska, who has developed five strategies to attract and retain young residents:

  1. High-speed internet. Millennials cite high-speed internet access as a basic staple of modern life. In rural settings, it enables long distance learning and online business opportunities.
  2. Invest in “youth priorities.” Millennials value socialization, so it’s important for rural communities to create “third spaces”—places other than home or work, such as Internet cafes and microbreweries.
  3. Provide entrepreneurial opportunities. More than 70 percent of young people want to own a business; 17 percent already do. Public markets, shared workspaces, financial incentives and “Buy Local” campaigns are all indications of an entrepreneurial culture.
  4. Actively engage and consult youth. Make sure they know their ideas and opinions matter. Involve them in community planning and local government, in addition to surveys and focus groups.
  5. Market your community to attract young people. Create intentional marking campaigns targeting young people in short, digital formats. Promote small-business friendliness and utilize peer-to-peer recommendations.

Another strategy to consider, Schallhorn adds, revolves around density. Smaller towns can appeal to millennials by maintaining their walkable neighborhoods and traditional downtown spaces—which mimic the benefits of dense urban areas. Check out the U of I Extension's "Building Entrepreneurial Communities" blog at to learn more. iBi