Stemming the migration of young people from rural communities is a common challenge facing local leaders across Illinois and the nation. Macoupin County is no exception. The county has seen a 7 percent population loss since 1980, according to U.S. Census figures.
Our communities are confronted by this problem every day, but I’ve recently seen changes that will help us attack it head on: comprehensive school funding reform that will inject fairness into the system for rural school districts; the promising Macoupin CEO program, now in its second year, which immerses local high school students in the business world, connects them with mentors and nurtures their entrepreneurial spirit; and an innovative new program at Blackburn College in Carlinville that could help change population trend lines locally.
Called Macoupin Promise, Blackburn will offer free tuition to Macoupin County high school students who meet certain family income and admissions requirements. Blackburn President John Comerford says it’s a way for the college to give back to the community and to help develop future leaders and employees of the county.
I view it as a clear message to local students in our small towns: they’re wanted, they’re needed, they’re a worthy investment and they don’t have to leave the region or the state to take advantage of the higher education system.
The migration of young people from rural communities to places that are perceived to have more to offer has unsettling implications for small towns with aging populations. I’ve lived in Bunker Hill my entire life. Over the years, many of us in Macoupin County have watched as bright, wonderful young people depart for college or job training elsewhere but never return to put down roots of their own.
This exodus of young people creates voids in the local workforce, the economy, the quality of life and the vitality of a place. Their physical absence, as well as the absence of their vision, their leadership and their buying power, makes it more difficult to entice business and residential investment, bring more new people to the area and attract the kinds of opportunities that help keep rural Main Streets vibrant and resilient.
We need more young people to settle in our small towns once they’ve earned their degrees and completed their job training. They need access to good jobs and great schools for their children. Macoupin County business and education leaders recognize that challenge, and what we’re seeing now are some early steps to tackle it.
Blackburn College under the leadership of its board of trustees and President Comerford, as well as the numerous business leaders who mentor students through the Macoupin CEO program, are to be commended for investing in the young people right here at home so that they, in turn, can someday invest in Macoupin County.
State Senator Andy Manar is a Democrat from Bunker Hill who represents the 48th Senate District.