Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bright Flight Club

The idea of a college campus is destructive to the host community. How higher education finds expression in the local landscape is parochial, as divisive as an interstate highway cutting through town. An easier way to make the point is to hold up land grant universities. It was a good idea in the late 19th century, but it is a drag today.

College towns tend to be places unto themselves, cultural and political archipelagos within the state. Students are adults held to a different standard. While you are immersed in your studies, society will give you more latitude to experiment. But when you graduate, you must leave this time and space. You are supposed to grow up.

This tradition is at odds with the university as agent of regional economic development. Rochester is trying to figure out a way forward:

"I know people who lived here for four years and didn't know that Charlotte beach existed," said Mollie Foust, a 2009 University of Rochester graduate.

So how can we expect young people to feel connected to a community if they don't ever see it? Foust and others think we need to get in their face, tell them what Rochester has to offer and help identify career opportunities.

Recently, I blogged about fostering a greater sense of place for students. Initiatives to capture graduates are quite common. I think of them as lost causes, but Pittsburgh's success story has me revisiting the issue. I still like the idea of planting a seed (appealing to another life stage) for a later return. However, I doubt that outmigration is the problem.

The article about Rochester concerns the shrinking 25-34 age cohort. I don't know how much natural decline is affecting the numbers. I do know that a lack of inmigration of young talent is a bigger culprit than outmigration. That report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (Buffalo) is already in the dustbin of history. How soon we forget.

I've followed quite a few conversations about brain drain in Upstate New York and Ohio. None of them consider a frank look at migration data. The baseline assumptions are flawed. The same policy narrative gets recycled almost annually and good research on the subject is universally ignored.

Shrinking cities hire consultants who exploit the faulty premise. The amount of money thrown recklessly into the wind is staggering. Millions, perhaps billions, of dollars are spent each year to fix talent in place. Fortunately, many of the programs have other benefits. The hyperbole about an exodus of graduates helps to justify the expenditure. Thus, the aim of introducing Rochester college students to the rest of the area can produce some good benefits.

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