By Maggy Lehmicke, Nebraska News Service
LINCOLN - More young doctors and lawyers would set up shop in rural communities if they could get some help repaying education loans. That was the message several young professionals brought to the Rural Futures Conference last week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Panelists said they recognized that rural communities offer good opportunities to young professionals, but finding the right spot can be a challenge.
"Finding a job was probably the hardest part of law school, and that's saying a lot," said Katie Samples Dean, a recent graduate of the Nebraska College of Law who currently practices in Sidney, Nebraska.
Between large agriculture business and smaller businesses that need legal protection, there is a desperate need for attorneys in the smaller communities, Dean said.
According to a 2015 report by the Nebraska State Bar Association, there are 31 counties in Nebraska with fewer than three attorneys, 11 of which don't have a single attorney.
The desire to move to a small community is there, Dean said, but the lack of jobs and resources serve as a barrier.
"I love it out there," Dean said of the town where she lives, about 50 miles outside of Sidney. "I planned to build my life there, and yet I was begging people for a job."
Jeff Story, a second-year student at the University of Nebraska College of Law, said there is a lack of awareness in larger cities about jobs in rural communities.
"It's hard to come from Omaha and Lincoln and think that a rural area has a lot of potential," Story said.
Story said a service-learning project he did in Red Cloud, Nebraska, showed him he can make a difference in smaller communities. More undergraduates should be encouraged to do these types of projects, he said.
"I think that's what's needed in the higher education system to show that there are opportunities there," Story said. "The best way to equip students is to give them that exposure."
Law isn't the only field that has a shortage of professionals in rural communities. Dana Marsh, a student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said there is a similar issue in health care.
"There is such a shortage of physicians and other health care professionals in rural areas," Marsh said, not just in Nebraska, but the country as a whole.
Marsh said medical school graduates need to be aware of opportunities in rural areas in addition to being supported by the community.
"We need to know that the community is willing to work with us," she said.
The opportunities available for health care professionals in smaller communities are endless, Marsh said.
"You actually have a broader scope of practice," she said. "You can really tweak your practice to what suits you and what suits your community."
Marsh said a requirement for her to move to a rural community would be assistance with loan repayment.
"There are so many programs out there that help with loan repayment," she said. "It's so important."
Dean said there needs to be similar opportunities available in other fields, including law.
"I love where I live, I love where I work," she said, "But I also make less money than my [urban] counterparts do, and I provide just as good of service if not better."
Dean said salary isn't the issue.
"It's fine because the cost of living is slightly lower, but my student loans don't change based on that," she said.
Despite her scholarships, Dean said she left law school with $78,000 in loan debt.
"I have to figure out how to make those payments while those who are making $120,000 dollars a year make the same payments," she said.
Though the state provides a loan repayment assistance program, Dean said it usually never reaches more than $20,000 total.
Financial help from the community would encourage a lot more young professionals to move to rural areas, Dean said.
She said programs that help students pay off debt after five years, such as there are in medical professions, would be ideal.
"I know that's a lot of money for a community to come up with," Dean said, but any amount of money would help.
"We are coming out really, really strapped down," she said.
Contact Maggy Lehmicke at firstname.lastname@example.org