Two separate but related articles on the topic of brain drain prompted me to revisit this matter. The first is out of Indiana [dead link], where local leaders are encouraged that 80% of top high school students in the state elect to attend college in state. For those who go out of state, fully 90% don’t come back after graduation. The second is out of Ohio [dead link], where there is lament that top students aren’t staying in state for college. This different take appears to be partially a matter of spin, as 84% of all college bound seniors in Ohio stayed in state for school.
Both of these states appear to hold the view that the key to attracting talent for the 21st century economy and eliminating the so-called “brain drain” is to retain its home grown youth. I disagree. It is not necessary, or in fact even necessarily desirable, to retain your college educated youth.
My first reason is that there are actually very good reasons to want your children to leave the place they grew up. There’s certainly a matter of tastes and preference here, so you can’t appeal to logic for a complete solution. There’s a certain tension between the value of “experiences” versus the value of “rootedness”. I am someone who falls firmly to the experiences side of the ledger. I agree with Duke Leto Atreides from David Lynch’s film adaptation of “Dune”, who said, “Without change, something in us sleeps, and seldom awakens.”*
But beyond purely values, it doesn’t strike me that in an ever more complex, diverse, globalized economy, a place’s best competitive interest is served by having a city full of people who’ve never lived anywhere else.
Letting your young people leave doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to say goodbye to them forever. After they’ve had their fun in the big city or traveled the world they can always come home again. What’s more, even if they don’t, these are your ambassadors to the world at large. Colleges and employers have long recognized the value of a strong alumni network. Countries like India have benefited enormously from connections to their diaspora communities. I am dumbfounded that no city or state has really tried to do anything like this.
I’m not going to say that states should actively kick out their young people. But having 100% of them stick around isn’t a good thing.
The concept of “brain drain” is a framing device that is metaphorically flawed in the first place. It implies that every community is endowed with a some fixed reservoir of talent, like a gigantic water tank or something, and that talent drains away out of some leak or valve at the bottom. Patch the leaks and suddenly your problems are solved, and you can maximize your fixed talent pool. This is as crazy as the wages fund doctrine.
As Indiana University economist Morton Marcus noted, the problem with the so-called brain drain isn’t brain outflow, it is the lack of brain inflow. Cities like New York, London, San Francisco, etc. didn’t build their talent bases on retaining the best of their home grown talent. They did it by hoovering up the best of everybody else’s home grown talent. The challenge facing cities in the Midwest (outside Chicago and a select few other places) is how to attract and retain people who don’t have roots in the community. Beyond retaining your own home grown talent and re-attracting your home grown talent that left after school, there is an essential third leg of the stool, and arguably the most critical: attracting other people’s talent. This is, unfortunately, an essential element that all too few cities have a strategy for addressing. And in fact, most of them have implicit strategies that are hostile to it.
I suggest that we need to have a new concept to replace the “brain drain” frame. Perhaps ” net brain flow” or “net talent flow” is the right way to think about it. Like net migration in population stats, this measures college grads (or your marker of choice) in minus college grads out. Figure out how to get your inflow up high enough and all of a sudden you won’t be concerned about outflow so much and can move on to treating those who moved away as an asset instead of the “one that got away”.
* If anyone knows where this quote actually originated, I’d love to know it.