Thursday, September 09, 2010

Brain Drain Boondoggles: Collegia

Collegia boasts it will help your region better retain college graduates. The revenue stream of Collegia is dependent upon a fundamental misunderstanding of talent migration. Perpetuating the myth is, in and of itself, a cottage industry. The American Institute for Economic Research is in cahoots with Collegia to fan the flames of brain drain hysteria. They have hit their mark:

The institute looked at 222 metro areas in the U.S. with student populations of 15,000 or more, and broke them down into four tiers -- major metros, midsize metros, smaller cities and college towns.

Researchers then considered 12 criteria, including student concentration, student diversity, arts and leisure, degree attainment, cost of living, earning potential and unemployment rate.

The Buffalo region scored particularly well for student diversity, thanks to the University at Buffalo, which has a high concentration of international students.

"City accessibility here is good, and the city also gets a comparatively high score for arts and leisure offerings," the institute wrote about the Buffalo region.

Not surprisingly, though, the region scored poorly when it came to the economy.

"An unfavorable brain drain score suggests that many of the young adults in the area eventually leave," the institute wrote. "Scores for earning potential, entrepreneurial activity, and cost of living are also relatively low."

While the area finished fifth in the percentage of the population between ages 25 and 34 with at least a bachelor’s degree, its percentage of total population with at least a bachelor’s degree declined.

“Without enough high-tech companies to absorb the talent produced by those schools, Rochester falls victim to brain drain when they leave,” the report adds.

The brain drain index ("Year-over-year ratio of population with B.A. degree living in the area") doesn't tell us whether the problem is inmigration or outmigration. It's the change of educational attainment rate for one year. Both Buffalo and Rochester might do a better job than average in retention. Those numbers won't land Collegia accounts.

I'd bet that the big brain gainers benefit from talent attraction, not better retention. Note all the winning college destinations in Utah and the impressive brain gain. We also know that Western New York struggles with inmigration, not outmigration. Give Rochester's relatively high "degree attainment", I'm confident that this region already does a great job of retention. There isn't a need to hire Collegia.


Anonymous said...

Jim, what are your thoughts on any potentially negative effects of talent churn--i.e. attraction, retention, and drain miss the mark, individually as concepts, because it's really churn that matters? I go back and forth on this thinking about Austin's economy and labor market. On the one hand, I think churn is what gives Austin its diversity of experience and network connections to other U.S. and global markets that fuel this region's entrepreneurial success. On the other hand, as I think you've picked up on my blog, I worry that constant churn, especially among young, talented people here, undermines our ability to get people invested in long-term thinking, much less getting active in political and civic ventures.

Jim Russell said...


Various demographic and migration patterns pose different challenges. Churn in and of itself shouldn't be an economic development goal. Regions can manage churn, which does erode social capital as well as strain infrastructure.

I'm getting the sense that planners and economic development professionals are looking for a churn rate sweet spot that would be deemed sustainable. There does seem to be a Goldilocks problem. I live in a Colorado urban neighborhood that has too much churn. My in-laws live in Pittsburgh neighborhoods that have too little churn. But I'm not convinced that seeking equilibrium is the answer.

A trend I find fascinating is how a number of Rust Belt cities have successfully dealt with low churn rates. Pittsburgh's prosperity has caused me to rethink my position on geographic mobility (i.e. more churn is better). It's possible that low churn regions suddenly find themselves with a competitive advantage.

I'm of the opinion that Austin can figure out how to manage the relatively high churn rate. You could look at the perils, such as Silicon Valley's lack of investment in local human capital. I'm sure there are some best practices models out there. Denver? But I'd caution against promoting some sort of ideal churn rate.