Plugging the brain drain

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported last week that overall enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities was down for the seventh year in a row.

In the past three years, the national average has been down by 1.5 percent, 1.3 percent in 2018 and 1.7 percent respectively, for a total reduction of 4.5 percent.

Arkansas is already handicapped in college education, ranking low among states in percentage of population with bachelor’s degrees, and was tied for seventh-worst in this year’s enrollment drop at 3.7 percent. Over the three-year period since 2017, total higher education enrollment in Arkansas is down more than 8 percent.

Enrollment data aren’t the whole picture, however. An increase in retention and graduation rates can offset an enrollment decline in terms of degree productivity, which is just what the Arkansas Department of Higher Education reported in its most recent annual report.

Of the most recent four-year class studied (2018), 36.3 percent graduated college within four years. While still low on the national scale, that’s a big gain over the previous year’s rate of only 25.8 percent.

Arkansas community colleges saw an even larger leap, as the 2018 rate of 21.2 graduating within two years is more than half-again higher than the previous 15.5 percent figure.

Credentialed education translates directly into performance metrics across several lifestyle categorizations, including earning power, parenting, citizenship and lawfulness. Generally speaking, leaving a lot of room for exceptions, better-educated people do better overall. Brain power, as shaped and developed through higher education and skilled training, therefore becomes an important community asset.

Areas with a lot of it, presumably, will progress more than those with less.

That line of reasoning is the basis for a measurement scale developed by Bloomberg called its “Brain Concentration Index.” Using comprehensive Census Bureau information, with an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) employment statistics, Bloomberg issues a dual set of lists each year.

Each list ranks metropolitan areas with a population of 90,000 or more according to a set of scoring measures. The first list scores MSAs on STEM work-force concentration, percentage of population possessing advanced degrees or science and engineering credentials, and net business establishment formation. It’s dominated by major metro areas like Boulder, Colo.; Durham, N.C.; and Seattle.

The other, more dubious, list is for “Brain Drain.” It assesses metropolitan areas on the outflow of advanced-degree holders, negative changes in white-collar jobs and STEM pay, and net business closures. Bloomberg’s bottom 10 on the Brain Drain Index are all much smaller MSAs, and lamentably Arkansas is one of nine states represented.

The Jonesboro MSA, roughly 135,000 people, is one of 366 MSAs in the country with more than 90,000 population. Size-wise, Jonesboro is number 304 and improving, with population growth estimated to be more than 15 percent by the 2020 census.

Coming in at No. 7 in the nation on the 2018 Bloomberg Brain Drain Index, Jonesboro’s worst score was on pay changes for jobs in STEM fields.

Obviously, nobody wants to rank high on a list with a name like Brain Drain, and in other places such publicity has provided a sort of “kick in the pants” to refocus and improve. Arkansas in general, as a small and agricultural state, will never fare as well on a list like the Bloomberg index. But it can always improve, and there are a number of examples from other places on ways to do it.

Last year, the Muskegon, Mich., MSA was No. 1 on the Brain Drain Index; this year it fell to number 10 and residents likely hope to be off the list altogether in the next round.

Muskegon used a free two-year tuition scholarship program for area high school seniors with high (3.5+) grade point averages to encourage bright local students to continue their education close to home. Historically, many of the highest GPA students had headed off to larger universities. The tuition incentive resulted in about half of the eligible seniors accepting local scholarships in 2018.

Another brain power attraction strategy focuses not on college selection for high schoolers, but debt reduction for college graduates.

At least 35 states, including Arkansas, have some form of student-loan forgiveness programs in place. But these typically are industry-specific, such as programs for teachers, veterinarians and public service.

Maybe individual communities should warm to the idea that debt forgiveness can be a powerful incentive for highly educated adults (who often have high student-loan balances) to locate in their area.

In a study by the American Institute of CPAs, millennial job seekers burdened by student loans named repayment of loan debt as the job benefit they valued most—ahead of health insurance, paid time off and matching retirement. Coupled with a scholarship program prioritizing local colleges and universities, an MSA-specific debt-forgiveness measure—based on location rather than field of work—might be a way to rapidly plug any community’s brain drain.

It’s new ground, for sure. But worth pioneering.

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