Opinion and Economic Analysis

Hicks: The real cause of brain drain? Quality of life

May 4, 2013

This month across Indiana, bright, talented and well-educated young people pack up their meager campus belongings and head out to new jobs. Their employment prospects, for the minority who don’t have jobs, are fantastic. The March unemployment rate among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 3.8 percent.

While the popular media worries a lot about college graduates in these economic climes, labor markets seem unperturbed about their prospects.

Within the Midwest, we hear a continued lament about “brain drain” and the shortage of key science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates. To remedy this, our state rewards schools for producing more such graduates, and inadvertently encourages them to bring in more out-of-state students for these programs.

Rarely in the annals of public policy have we so misdiagnosed a problem, and so assuredly applied the wrong medicine.

To be clear, brain drain is a genuine problem in Indiana. We lose thousands of graduates (STEM and otherwise) to other states from our universities every year. Instead of slowing this trend, our higher education financing policies accelerate this problem by pushing more students into majors that are in demand elsewhere.

But brain drain in Indiana is neither a problem of our universities nor a result of our business relocation efforts. The Indiana Economic Development Corp. is connecting with a record share of job creators, touting the truth about our great fiscal and regulatory environment.

The problem is in our communities.

About one in seven counties has a population that is growing faster than the national rate. A tad more than half are growing more slowly than the nation as a whole. The remaining third of Hoosier counties are in their fourth or fifth decade of decline.

The plain but disagreeable truth is that a majority of Indiana counties are not places where college grads, or young people in general, aspire to live. Employers know this, and so those needing these talented young people locate elsewhere.

Today’s high-income and young workers are looking for good, if not great, school systems for their kids. They want clean, safe and livable communities and a mix of recreation. They want their home to grow in value and they want access to the comely diversions of arts and culture.

Only a handful of Indiana counties offer these things in abundance.

Remedies for our brain drain problems are neither easy nor fast and so demand urgent attention. But first we must understand where the real problems are, as well as where they are not.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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