For years, says campus President Angelo Armenti Jr., recruiters at his school -- California University of Pennsylvania -- toiled in counties where the death rate was higher than the birth rate.
"We had to find students elsewhere or be condemned to shrinking," he said.
And it found plenty.
A school once so worried about enrollment losses that it pondered a name change in 2001 invested $125 million to replace its aging dormitories with suite-style apartments. It beefed up its marketing and targeted its recruiting to the eastern part of the state, including Philadelphia, as well as towns all along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
It pushed into online learning so aggressively that by last year, it counted more students from the state of California than from the neighboring states of Maryland, New York or West Virginia.
If you don't want to shrink, then you must attract outsiders. Take all the ideas about plugging the brain drain and only talk about how to get talent to move to your area. Drop the term "retention". Don't mention it again.
I took heart in a story from Dayton:
Ben Norton and Amanda Baker, both 22 and May 2009 graduates of the University of Dayton who came from bigger cities, are launching careers as artists here.
The reason why is Summer Space, a pilot incentive that provides studio space, supplies, a gallery opening in the fall and serious encouragement to create.
“If I was back home in Nashville, I would be living with my parents, painting in the basement and competing just to get my foot in the door of the art scene,” said Norton, a painter whose work is being sponsored by Summer Space board member Sue Thompson.
“I’m already part of that here. I never expected to have an opportunity like this.”
“I think we can start something,” said Baker, a photographer from Columbus. “I would love to be part of putting Dayton back on the charts.”
That's the Rust Belt way forward. Outsiders will rebuild these cities and all the resources and energy should be channeled in that direction. Granted, I understand that these Dayton graduates stayed in the region. But we should be looking at how the university attracted this talent to the city in the first place. Dayton can mimic its own university's success. Also, market the opportunities that enticed Ben Norton and Amanda Baker to stick around to out-of-state graduates. Send Ben back to Nashville to poach Vanderbilt students and help them relocate to Dayton.