New Research on Brain Drain and Recent College Graduates

As I discussed in my previous post, I believe there is value in education scholars using social media in spite of the concerns that being active on venues like Twitter can raise. One example of this occurred last April, when Doug Webber of Temple University ran some numbers from the American Community Survey looking at the percentage of young college graduates who left New York (in the context of the state’s proposed Excelsior Scholarship program). The numbers got quite a bit of attention in a very nerdy portion of higher ed Twitter and led me to encourage Doug to write up the results.

He then reached out to me about working on the paper with him, which ended up being a lot of fun to write. After going through the peer review process (one substantive and one minor round of changes), our resulting article is now online at Educational Researcher. (And a big kudos to the ER reviewers and editorial team for taking the paper from initial submission to appearing online in just eight months!)

We ended up looking at state-level interstate mobility rates among young (age 22-24) bachelor’s degree recipients using ACS data, focusing on the 2005-2015 period to examine pre-recession and post-recession patterns. Overall mobility rates dropped from 12.7% in 2005 to 10.4% in 2015, which is a surprising finding given that people have historically tended to move at higher rates during economic downturns. We found quite a bit of variation across states in net interstate mobility rates both pre-recession (2005-07) and post-recession (2013-15), as summarized in the table below.

State-level changes in the number of young adults with bachelor’s degrees.
  Gain/loss of young adults w/BAs (pct)
State 2005-2007 2013-2015
Alabama -4.0 -4.6
Alaska 3.9 -5.0
Arizona 4.2 -0.5
Arkansas -1.4 -2.7
California 3.9 3.7
Colorado 0.7 8.0
Connecticut -2.3 -4.1
Delaware -17.5 -7.2
District of Columbia 20.0 19.0
Florida 2.6 1.0
Georgia 6.5 -1.0
Hawaii 7.6 8.1
Idaho -3.9 -10.8
Illinois 3.6 3.4
Indiana -12.9 -7.2
Iowa -5.1 -8.1
Kansas -10.3 -4.6
Kentucky -1.2 -2.8
Louisiana -8.3 3.4
Maine -12.5 -8.7
Maryland 4.9 -1.5
Massachusetts 0.7 2.1
Michigan -8.7 -5.6
Minnesota 1.9 -1.2
Mississippi -2.3 -10.8
Missouri -0.7 -2.6
Montana -23.4 -13.3
Nebraska 3.6 -4.3
Nevada 13.3 10.0
New Hampshire -4.6 -10.0
New Jersey 3.0 -3.4
New Mexico 4.3 2.1
New York -0.2 -0.3
North Carolina 3.6 4.2
North Dakota -9.0 -1.8
Ohio -5.9 -3.5
Oklahoma -5.8 -4.4
Oregon -2.1 1.4
Pennsylvania -6.2 -6.1
Rhode Island -19.1 -11.3
South Carolina -2.7 -2.8
South Dakota -8.0 0.0
Tennessee -1.6 1.9
Texas 3.5 3.4
Utah -12.4 -3.7
Vermont -15.4 -10.9
Virginia 3.6 2.8
Washington 6.2 6.8
West Virginia -12.7 -1.9
Wisconsin -3.3 -0.2
Wyoming 6.1 3.5
(1) The percentages reflect changes over the number of 22-24 year olds with a bachelor’s degree who were in the state in a given year.
(2) These values represent averages across the years referenced above.

This article reflects a great example of how a willingness to share some preliminary data on social media results in a publication that is both (hopefully) policy-relevant and a chance to work with a new collaborator. I can’t say enough great things about working with Doug—and I hope to have more of these types of collaborations in the future!

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

7 thoughts on “New Research on Brain Drain and Recent College Graduates”

  1. Can you briefly describe how “gain” and “loss” are defined in your work. a lot of Midwestern states “export” education in that their state universities offer relatively bargain rates to out-of-staters. For a lot of reasons we wouldn’t expect them to keep all the students they attracted, but that attraction might affect the gain/loss number a great deal.

    1. Thanks for the comment. “Gain” is importing young adults after graduation and “loss” is exporting them. You make a good point in that some state universities attract a fair percentage of out-of-state students, but this generally only applies to flagship universities (a small part of the overall system of higher education). About 85% of all students stay in state for college, so this could be pulling the numbers to some extent.

      Also of note: A good number of the state universities that attract the most out-of-state students are not in the Midwest. No flagship university in the Midwest had a majority of out-of-state freshmen in 2016, while several other states’ flagships did. Play around with the fun dataset at for some more details.

      1. BUT the midwest flagships are larger than most and some have more OOS than schools like UNC and UVa have as total instate. And most are growing that number–Michigan, Minn., Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio State etc. Others would if they could but state says no–Illinois.

  2. How do you figure that the population of young college grads in Minnesota shrank between 2013 and 2015? I just looked at the data, and I only see evidence that the population is growing.

    Minnesotans age 18-24 with college degrees:
    2013 – 11.4% of 508,453 (57,964)
    2015 – 12.9% of 505,761 (65,070)
    (figures from ACS 1-year estimates, table S1501)

    1. It’s still possible to have a net outmigration of recent college graduates (the focus of our article) while still having the number of graduates increase. That would require the growth in the number of graduates who stay in state to be larger than the net outmigration. For example, if the number of graduates who stayed in state increased by 10,000 and there was a net outmigration of 5,000, both could be true.

      It also could be driven by changes in the 18-21 year old population. That’s worth digging into more.

      1. But in a sense this goes back to my earlier point, which I will try to generalize. A state or area or country may choose to create more graduates than it can keep. Education is an industry in itself, with direct benefits (jobs and investment) to the area that provides it. It might be fine if a region if it “loses” some graduates – especially if its stock of graduates is growing – and it might at least OK if its stock of graduates does not grow. In both cases, education itself can be described as an industry, possibly a growth industry: given that there is a local multiplier effect, it’s better to have than not to have it. Anyway, the term “brain drain” doesn’t really describe what is going on in economic terms. The real “drain” would be if the students left before college.

        Of course, all of what I said above shades into hot contemporary questions about worker mobility – or the lack of it – and whether to think of the US as an integrated economy or a collection of local/regional economies. But we can say this. It’s well known that higher-paid sectors (especially for younger skilled workers) of the US economy are becoming increasingly geographically clustered. Not every region can be a high-tech cluster any more than every city can have have an auto assembly plant. But in the auto industry there is money to be made and jobs to be had, as suppliers, even some distance from the clusters. Education may be playing a similar role in today’s hot industries in that it can provide any region that can export education with a chance to participate in the more dynamic part of the economy. And unless a region trains workers for those dynamic sectors there is little chance of developing those sectors locally.

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