Let’s Call Boston’s ‘Brain Drain’ What It Is

It's really just a missed opportunity to attract more college graduates.

Photo via Twitter

Photo via Twitter

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released a study showing that New England retains a smaller share of its college graduates to work in the region than other census areas—this is the infamous “brain drain” about which Boston’s interested parties periodically stress out.

The drain is bad news, and it’d be a good number to improve if policymakers and universities can find a way. But amid talk on the subject it seems that an important point is taken for granted: because we get so many non-New Englanders to come here for college, we don’t actually have a drain. Just less of a flood than we’d like. That’s because we’re still a net importer of college graduates. The Fed report’s author senior economist Alicia Sasser Modestino acknowledges that:

“… For a given college class [New England] comes out ahead, actually adding each year to the number of recent college graduates beyond what it would have if it educated only its native population.”

In fact, because we attract so many non-native college students, and non-native college students are generally less likely to stay in the region where they went to school, we’re at a natural disadvantage in terms of how our statistics for college grad retention measure up with the rest of the country. Our numbers are just doomed to look worse because we have such good luck in getting people to come here for school.

But whatever the reasons, the simple fact remains that we attract a lower share of college graduates, both native and non-native, than do other regions. We retain 63.6 percent of our college grads, compared to 88 percent in the Pacific region. Breaking that down to look just at those who came from elsewhere to study, we retain 18.6 percent of our non-native college students. The Pacific region keeps 52 percent! (Curse you, California sun, and your powers of persuasion!)

If we could pull off California’s numbers, we’d be able to capitalize more on our advantage bringing college kids into our region than other areas, and we’d wind up with a larger number of skilled employees in our regional economy.

Furthermore, Modestino suggests that we can achieve improvement.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, recent college graduates are leaving New England primarily for job-related reasons – not housing costs,” Modestino says in the Boston Globe. “This suggests that states can take tangible steps to retain more recent college graduates by building stronger ties between colleges and employers.”

The report itself is pretty dry but worth a read for anyone wanting to understand just where New England stands compared with the nation and what’s motivating it.