Youth survey offers good news for greater Nebraska

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A survey co-created by the Nebraska Community Foundation and the UNO Center for Public Affairs Research provides small towns with a positive message.

The Nebraska Community Foundation has done some youth surveys in the past. The latest one sheds new light on what it will take to keep young people in their hometowns. “We asked 1,300 students in small and medium-sized communities in Nebraska, like Axtell, McCook, and Columbus, how they felt about their communities,” Dr. Josie Shafer with the UNO Center for Public Affairs Research said. “We wanted to know about what they liked, what they didn’t like, and sort of their willingness to live in their communities in the future.” The survey shows that young people really do love their hometowns. “They felt connected, they wanted to live there in the future, and they have a real understanding of the good life these Nebraska rural communities have,” Schafer said.

The primary findings show that students value safety. NCF Chief Operating Officer K.C. Belitz discovered this during a class with Columbus Lakeview students a few years ago. He asked what students would need to return home after college. “8 out of the first 11 said, low crime rate and public safety,” Belitz said. “It was such an unexpected answer. When I moved into this role at NCF, it felt like a question I wanted to have someone take a look at in a more formal way.”

Another finding in the youth survey is young people are community-oriented. They are highly involved, and they have a desire to be a part of their community, which is good news for small towns. “I think we were all surprised, but pleasantly surprised that students did feel good about their communities,” Schafer said.

One more discovery from the survey shows that students actually favor small towns. “There were comments like, there’s better entertainment, and more career opportunities in bigger places, but they still really loved things about their communities,” Schafer said. Some students expressed concern that jobs they would be looking for after college, would not be available in their hometowns. “We asked students, what kind of jobs do you want? Medical, firefighter, or biotech were responses. Then, we asked students, what jobs do you feel are available in your communities, and agriculture, manufacturing and education were the most common. So there’s a mismatch between what students want to do, and what they feel is available in their community,” Schafer said. NCF experts say many of the jobs young people want may already exist. They just need to know about them. “That creates an action item for communities to make sure students know that there are probably more job opportunities here then you think there are,” Belitz said. “What are we going to do as a community to build awareness of the job opportunities that exist in our place or near our place?”

The Nebraska Community Foundation is sharing the results of the survey across its network. The survey seems to prove that Nebraska already has what young people want. Now, the question is how to make sure students know this. “How do we tell not only Nebraska high school students, but that age across the country, that Nebraska has a lot of what you are looking for, so why don’t you come check it out?” Belitz said. “I think the number one takeaway from this survey is students really do love these rural communities,” Schafer said. “We need to continue to build those things they love about them, like family, connections, safety, and small town life.” It’s that small town life, that’s apparently becoming more and more appealing to this latest generation.