Wednesday, July 07, 2010

College Enrollment Economic Geography

Where high school graduates go to college has little to do with brain drain. Furthermore, most regions and states have no business worrying about brain drain in the first place. Are jobs going unfilled because too many people are leaving?

Colleges and universities are now much more than sites of local workforce development. These institutions of higher learning are a growing part of the regional economy. In Pittsburgh's case, they are the centerpiece of the revitalization of Southwestern PA. Hence the interest in enrollment trends:

The source of undergraduate freshman at regional institutions has changed in recent years (see Figure 2). In 1986, 1,911 matriculating undergraduate freshmen came from the U.S. outside of Pennsylvania, with another 170 international freshmen. By 2008, non-Pennsylvania residents made up 28 percent of the 14,927 undergraduate freshmen at colleges and universities in the Pittsburgh region. Over onequarter— 26.7 percent, or 3,927 students—were from other parts of the U.S., with an additional 244 undergraduate freshmen from overseas.

A declining population also means a shrinking pool of local freshman. For better or for worse, Pittsburgh is first and foremost a college town. Filling the seats of classrooms matters to the entire region. Local and national demographics do not favor this economic development strategy. There is already a war for students. As New Jersey can tell you, both Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania have won the early battles:

New Jersey saw a net loss of 31,464 college students in 2008, more than twice that of any other state, according the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracks enrollment in schools that grant federal financial aid, including county colleges. Of New Jersey residents who enrolled that year, 35 percent went out of state.

Pennsylvania saw a net gain of 13,328 students, with 16.8 percent of its residents attending out-of-state schools. ...

... But New Jersey's migration problem cannot be solved simply with more desks, said Scott Jaschik, an editor of Inside Higher Ed, an online publication. Attracting students is not a guarantee they will settle here.

"Students follow the jobs," Jaschik said.

"When people say, 'If we do these things, we're sure of where the best-and-brightest will live,' I'd be very skeptical," he said.

Saagar Sethi, 17, a recent Cherry Hill West graduate, was offered a full ride at Rutgers. Instead he chose Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for its computer-science program. Even with financial aid and help from his parents, he likely will accrue $25,000 in loan debt per year.

"It was worth it to pay more to get a well-known school like Carnegie Mellon," he said.

Despite what Edward Glaeser contends, trying to retain graduates from local colleges and universities is a crap shoot. The real money is in attracting students, something Carnegie Mellon does extremely well. The industry of higher education in New Jersey is hurting and that affects jobs as well as funding. But you won't get much sympathy from voters over waning enrollments. So, you trot out some brain drain numbers and get them interested.

Enrollment are connected to other issues, such as attracting and retaining star faculty. Star students are also vital to R&D programs. All of the above generate more successful alumni and more generous donations. It is a virtuous circle. Of least concern is brain drain.

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