Wednesday, March 31st, 2010
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is doing a series called “Can St. Louis Compete?” that I intend to dive into in some depth tomorrow. But I wanted to preview a piece of this today by looking at a quote from the third installment called “The Time to Act is Now:”
Every year about 23,000 people earn a four-year college degree in St. Louis. Then too many of them leave. In our new knowledge economy, universities are like factories. They make ideas. They produce talent. But unlike factories of old, that talent is highly mobile and keeping it close to home can be tough. [emphasis added]
This notion of the university as a “factory” gets very close to the truth. Then the PD veers away in order to talk about retaining talent and seeing the university graduate situation through the regular “brain drain” lens.
But let’s compare with another type of factory, the steel mill, and see if that frame makes sense. Indiana is the #1 steel producing state in America. A friend of mine noted that if we treated steel mills like universities, Indiana would be obsessing over “steel drain” and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to try to keep steel from leaving the state.
Obviously that’s ludicrous. Because Indiana has lots of steel mills, it is clearly going to be a huge exporter of steel. This is seen, as it is in almost any other context, as a win. Countries, states, and cities love to have exports. This huge export business has not had any appreciable impact on the supply of steel available to Hoosiers. Indiana can readily obtain all the steel it needs at a fair market rate without worrying about where the output of the USX Gary Works ends up.
Back to our universities. These are factories that produce graduates. If you’ve got a lot of educational factories in your town, don’t be surprised if you export a lot of product, i.e. graduates. That’s what factories do. Most factories are not intended to serve a merely local market. In the case of St. Louis, Washington University is a nationally prestigious school. It’s simply not realistic to believe any material percentage of those grads are going to stay in St. Louis. It would be an incredible uphill battle to try to convince even a small fraction of additional grads to do so. Universities export college grads. It’s the very nature of what they do.
I’ve made the same observation about tier one cities like New York and Chicago. Like colleges, these large cities also act as “human capital refineries”. They take in raw recruits in the form of immigrants and young singles, and export middle class Americans and families. These places are always going to be structural sources of outmigration.
That doesn’t mean you don’t try to sell students on St. Louis. You just look at the grads differently. Does the university itself see it as a loss for students to leave? Absolutely not. Those alumni are among the school’s biggest assets. They go on to build the university brand around the world through their accomplishments, and are important sources of funding and other benefits (such as hiring more grads at companies where they work).
Tapping into this alumni network for your city is a better way to look at your output of graduates from major universities, not looking at them all as opportunity lost. Sure, engage them, make them fall in love with your city as many people do fall in love with their college town. Sure, recruit them to your city. But don’t believe that the future of your city’s talent base resides in convincing a materially greater percentage of grads from local colleges to stick around.
If you really want to understand how to think about talent circulation and the geography of talent, surf on over to Burgh Disapora, where Jim Russell is pioneering the field as it applies to American cities.