Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Boston Brain Drain Boondoggle

Today, CEOs for Cities proudly posts about Boston seeking the talent dividend. Raising the region's educational attainment rate is a laudable goal. Edward Glaeser once suggested to Buffalo to do just that:

No mayor ever got reelected by making it easy for his citizens to move to Atlanta, of course, even when that might be a pretty good outcome for the movers themselves. But just because local pols will eagerly seek federal place-based spending doesn’t mean that the feds should comply. A sensible federal approach for upstate New York would invest in people-based policies that improve the economic futures of the children growing up there. Education is the best tool we have to fight poverty. If the children of upstate cities were better educated, then they would earn more as adults—whether they stayed in their hometowns or moved to Las Vegas. And people-based policies may actually motivate states and cities to spend more wisely, in order to retain their newly educated and mobile residents.

Almost 3-years have passed since Glaeser wrote those words. His advocacy for a better talent retention policy eluded me at the time. Last Thursday, he spelled out how Boston might "spend more wisely" to keep its college graduates:

MASSACHUSETTS’ GREATEST natural resource is its stock of 535,000 college and graduate school students. Human capital brings the ideas and entrepreneurship needed for regional success, yet too many of our students leave, including the entrepreneurs who created Facebook. Retaining talent requires us to fight the regulations that make entrepreneurship too rare and housing too expensive, but the state should also aim at winning students’ hearts while they are still in school.

Skills predict urban success. Across metropolitan areas, an extra 5 percentage points of the adult population with college degrees in 1970 has resulted in an 8 percent more population growth and a 4 percent more income growth. Yet the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Alicia Sasser found that 29.5 percent of New England’s college graduates left the region within a year of graduation, the highest out-migration rate in the country. That exodus reflects our schools’ aim of educating the world, but the state not retaining the graduates. ...

... One vision is to explore private interest in building a student-city somewhere in Greater Boston. Would a consortium of private developers and colleges be interested in erecting large amounts of dormitory space if they could also put in connected retail space and bypass local land use controls? If a collection of builders were willing to deliver dormitories, then they would also have an incentive to make the experience pleasant. A collective student-city would give students a sense of place and lead to more regional identity.

Glaeser is peddling the classic brain drain boondoggle. Tap into the anxiety about graduates leaving the state and then sell some initiative, purporting to fix the problem. How can we be sure that the student-city will work?

Glaeser's argument is disingenuous. He mismatches the geographic unit of analysis (data for New England, Massachusetts, and metropolitan areas such as Boston). He also focuses on one side of the talent dividend equation, retention. Boston is already a brain gain city, a winner in terms of educational attainment. As Glaeser surely appreciates, smart cities tend to get smarter.

Boston is a magnet for talent. I wouldn't spend a dime on retention. However, a student-city would do wonders for the enrollments of all the colleges and universities in the region. That's the interest Glaeser is serving.

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