What we lose when Kansas college graduates drift to surrounding states

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

When a government invests in a bridge, that bridge serves its purpose in the same place, of course, for its entire lifespan. Ditto for most other public investments, from small (a stop) to large (a medical center). Benefits spent by a state, city, or town accrue to the residents of that region.

But what about education?

It is clear that funding vibrant schools helps the surrounding community, the real estate market and, most directly and most importantly, the students themselves.

However, we are crossing our fingers that Kansas students, upon graduation, will stay here in Kansas. We hope their enriched brains will help our cities thrive. We hope they start a new non-profit medical center or business, maybe one that makes stop signs.

This downstream benefit of education — that a state government can overburden its youth — relies on students to pack up their apartments in Lawrence, Manhattan, and Hays and move to Salina, Leawood, and Dodge City.

The alternative is the dreaded brain drain: the possibility that students could move to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, rather than Pittsburgh, Kansas. And a recent national survey on the news of the brain drain was grim for Kansas.

The National Bureau of Economic Research published “Graduates on the move: Measuring college-specific labor markets for graduates” in May, and the Washington Post published two data visualizations this week.

If you haven’t clicked on the links to the study yet, try to guess where Kansas ranks among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. How do you predict it compares to its neighbours: Missouri, Colorado and Nebraska ? Where do Kansas students move if they leave the state?

As you consider this, let’s admire how the study extracted its data. Using the professional networking website LinkedIn, the study aggregated “information on alumni geographic locations for nearly every public and private nonprofit college and university in the United States.” The data echoes previous government studies that track graduates and the location of their jobs.

The advantage of considering this study rather than the previous ones? The researchers say their “data cover a wider range of institutions and are available for finer geographic levels.”

The researchers also caught my attention with this observation: “Increased mobility of college graduates over time has contributed to declining state appropriations over the past 40 years. … Taxpayer support for public funding of higher education depends on the return on investment.

As one of the many college employees in Kansas who has often been eager for a raise, he was curious to see how our state legislature’s reluctance to fund even modest salary increases might relate to the worker mobility.

As one of the many college employees in Kansas who has often been eager for a raise, he was curious to see how our state legislature’s reluctance to fund even modest salary increases might relate to the worker mobility.

Now that I’ve given you a moment to predict how Kansas will perform, let’s dive into it.

Kansas was the fifth-worst country in retaining college graduates, with the state losing 47.2% more college graduates than it gains. The only states that did worse were geographically concentrated in the northeast: Rhode Island, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Vermont.

These states could easily ignore these findings, because three of these states are geographically small, so it is less likely that graduates will be able to find employment there. After all, there are only a limited number of jobs in Rhode Island, especially if you aspire to rare work – like, say, redesigning stop signs.

It is disturbing that Kansas, a great state in the Midwest, finds itself in such ignominious company.

In a second visualization, the Post showed where the students ended up. Kansas also falls to the bottom of the list here, with substantial flights to Missouri, Texas, Colorado and California. Kansas graduates are migrating east to Missouri in predictable but troubling numbers.

“About 50% of recent college graduates live and work in the metropolitan area closest to the institution they attended,” the study says.

We all know that the Kansas City metro area attracts the Jayhawks, Wildcats and Shockers. In addition to migration like this draining the state of the intellect, it also robs the state of tax revenue from workers who are likely to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more than non-graduates in the course of their career.

States profiting from the brain drain? States like Colorado, New York, Washington and California all attract 20% more college graduates than they lose.

In the days following the new research, I wondered what future grads thought about choosing their post-campus home.

Luckily, I found myself this week in the perfect place to put them down. I shared dinner with seven University of Kansas students, all from Kansas State. These students, thanks to win scholarships in school journalism schoolare among the brightest young students in our state.

It didn’t take much to get them talking.

Students who planned to stay in Kansas appreciated the chance to start families where they themselves had grown up, whether in Wichita or Emporia. They agreed with their fellow students — those considering moving — that Kansas is a place to settle, not a place to adventure.

Of the students planning to leave, some said they planned to return to Kansas after spending time in other states. However, reflecting on my post-college diversions across the country and retracing the paths of my friends, it’s clear: if you leave the state, you’re much less likely to return.

The most logical answer to “why leave Kansas?” was the limited number of true metropolitan areas to choose from. It’s really just Wichita and Kansas City, said one student (disregarding the fact that much of Kansas City is in Missouri).

Most common in their responses was a wanderlust that Kansas cannot satisfy. “There was a sense of freedom in New York and no judgment,” said one student of his recent wanderings on the streets of Manhattan (the one in New York). “The strangest thing here is nothing there.”

Students said they felt a bit suffocated by Kansas because they thought it was seamless. Their feeling of claustrophobia was a combination of living here and recognizing that Kansas isn’t as diverse as many other states.

Their feelings, shared over iced tea and cheesecake, underscore the complexity of slowing, let alone reversing, Kansas’ brain drain. A singular solution—a new economic incentive or a new company moving its headquarters—doesn’t deliver what most new Kansas grads want at the start of their lives: a different kind of Kansas.

The daunting complexity of changing the Kansas culture doesn’t mean we give up and help our new grads pack their U-Hauls for Denver and Houston. Instead, it suggests the urgency of progressively creating a Kansas that is a destination, not an exit, for our brightest minds.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own review, here.

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