Earlier this month, we were proud to report that Lafayette, Indiana, was ranked among the top smartest cities in the United States. We could conclude that our scores were artificially high because of the number of students represented in the area, but their findings controlled for age and thus they believe that the number of overall college graduates made the difference in scores.
College graduates, it appears, make a lot of difference. It’s widely believed that the number of college graduates in your area is a good indicator of the health of your city. While Indiana has a good number of residents graduating from college, Indiana has a brain drain problem. Earlier this year, NPR reported that 50 percent of Indiana’s college graduates leave the state after graduation. The higher the educational level, the more likely graduates were to leave the state altogether, with “only about 16 percent of PhD recipients remaining in Indiana’s workforce one year after graduation.” Tippecanoe County has an okay retention rate for graduates at all levels at about 59% — which you can see on a county-by-county basis on this interactive map. Indiana remains low overall, especially compared with the rest of the Midwest. Ohio, for example, retains almost 80% of its graduates.
Some areas around the country have resorted to dramatic means to attract and retain young college graduates, even offering to pay their student loans or offer tax incentives to help with debt relief if they move to more rural, post-industrial areas:
As part of the program, Waldron receives around $3,000 every year for the next five years for a total of $15,000. Moving to the small town of Hillsboro, he believes, was the right decision for his family’s future. “It had two perks: to be closer to the family, but also to be able to jump ahead financially, which is something I wanted to take advantage of as well.”
Piccirillo’s program in Niagara Falls offers a similar incentive for freshly-minted professionals. “We’re a city that has lost 50,000 people over the last 50 years. We’re a post-industrial city trying to redefine itself.”
Participants in the program, which received $200,000 of initial funding this week, will either own or rent a home in a select neighborhood in the city. If participants remain in good standing with their student loans and mortgage company or landlord, they will be receive up to $3,500 a year for two years. By Piccirillo’s team’s estimates, the average college graduate pays around $291 per month, which comes to $3,492 annually.
With student loan debt playing a major role in the decision on where to live and work, these cities are hoping to attract young professionals to put down permanent roots and revive the local economy. The folks in Niagara Falls believe that “100-150 people could make a major positive impact on the city.” While the proponents of these programs have no illusions that this will solve their cities’ economic problems, they do hope to attract young movers and shakers who will be interested in developing a creative atmosphere, revive neighborhoods, and start interesting small businesses, the kinds of things that make a neighborhood worthwhile.
Lafayette certainly doesn’t have a population problem, and yes, we’re pretty wealthy overall. But we share the loss of middle class union manufacturing jobs over the last thirty to forty years that has so devastated the rest of the Rust Belt. A trip through rural Indiana — the empty warehouse spaces, crumbling manufacturing spaces, loss of revenue with the decline of the train industry — and it’s clear that the creep of decline is not so far away. We are fortunate to have the university in our backyard, with all of the student, tourist, sports, and support revenue that it brings. But while it’s important to appreciate the university and all it’s economic and cultural assets, it’s also important to remember that despite the downtown revival, despite the revival of historic neighborhoods, despite our good schools, despite our charming festivals and good restaurants, most of the young people we strive to educate plan to leave us behind. Why is that, and what can we do to change their minds?