After World War II, many Appalachians took the “Hillbilly Highway” to Chicago, Akron, and other northern cities. Then, those manufacturing towns scattered around the Great Lakes turned into the Rust Belt, and today vast swaths of the American hinterland are devastated by drugs, suicide, and despair — indeed, as one demographer found, the more a county has been wounded by these trends, the more likely it voted Trump.
How to regrow these towns and cities is a complicated question. Fracking is one solution, but there are a billion reasons that’s not going to be widely replicable, since it depends on geology and also has way of destroying the planet, and will eventually run out, like all other natural resources. According to migration blogger Lyman Stone, the path of population (and therefore economic) resilience is higher education.
You can head over to his Medium essays for the fancy math lying underneath his claim, but I’ll summarize it briefly: The more graduate students a county has, the greater its population growth — whether you’re talking Alabama or California. Tiny Pikeville, Kentucky, is a case study: distant from interstate highways and isolated by mountainous terrain, the town of 7,000 has been growing over the last 25 years, even as the coal economy has receded. The key, Stone argues, is the University of Pikeville, which has more than doubled its enrollment since adding a medical school in 1997. He cites Roanoke and Charlottesville, Virginia, as other examples; same with Lexington and Morehead in Kentucky.
“People look at Appalachia and they see population decline because of coal, but that’s not a responsible view,” Stone told Science of Us in a direct message. “Economic sectors come and go. Every region has lost major businesses and sectors at some point. Some spiral into population decline, others don’t, because they find substitutes! And that’s my core argument: Appalachia isn’t depopulating because they lost coal and steel, but because they didn’t find a substitute.”
Grad schools are especially potent, he says, since they attract people more ready to settle down and dig into a community. They also create university hospitals and other spinoff businesses. Indeed, a strong graduate-research program can animate an entire city: Stone points to Carnegie Mellon and how its world-class computer-science program is powering Pittsburgh, to the point that driverless Ubers are tooling around the Steel City. Not only is knowledge power, but creating knowledge can strengthen an entire region.