A new report (pdf), as reported by a number of Ohio’s news sources, predicts a depressing future for Ohio’s ability to attract and retain young people.
The worse news is that its not just out-of-state students who are down on the buckeye state; the report finds that 51% of Ohio natives don’t want to stay. Having spent the past four years as an undergraduate student at two of Northeast Ohio’s universities, I can honestly testify that these numbers seem quite reasonable and realistic.
Some people are questioning the survey’s methodology and suggesting that it only includes a biased sample from the state’s “elite universities”; even so, I don’t completely know that it negates the conclusion. It’s true that locals have a lot invested in Ohio, but I’m starting to fear that many are falling victim to the confirmation bias. If we can’t acknowledge that we have a problem, then it becomes that much more difficult to solve; and when it comes to brain drain, Ohio has a very serious problem.
When I ask Cleveland’s local leadership what it would take to keep people like me around, I typically get two answers:
1. If Cleveland had jobs to offer, the city would be teaming with young people. This makes sense. Most surveys indicate that careers are extremely important to young people, but I’m not sure it’s so simple. A city that has jobs to offer is good; a city that has more jobs to offer and other attractive qualities is better. Plus, it seems like college grads are moving to certain cities with high unemployment rates in spite of jobs being few and far between. Conor Dougherty’s piece in the Wall Street Journal describes an important phenomenon that can easily go overlooked: cities with high unemployment aren’t necessarily deterring college grads. Despite some of the worst unemployment rates around, young people are flooding into cities like Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon using the logic, “if I’m going to be unemployed, I might as well live in a place where I want to be.” Say what you want about these cities, call them pretentious yuppie magnets, talk about how we don’t want Ohio’s cities to become like them, or whatever else. It’s hard to deny that these cities aren’t doing something right. And when the economy turns, they will be in an excellent position to take advantage of all the talent they are attracting.
2. Wait until you have two kids and a mortgage, and then you’ll see how great Cleveland is. Perhaps young people aren’t in a position to value some of Cleveland’s best assets: the dirt-cheap cost of living and the number of respectable suburban school districts. Even so, to expect everyone who moves away after college to admit their error and come running back feels like a strategy doomed to fail. Sure, we all know someone who moved to Boston or Chicago or New York City after college and hated everything about it, or someone who came to school here and fell in love with the city. The selection bias makes it easy to think that there are a lot more people who move away and come back than there probably are. Once people invest in a career, meet new friends, and get married in another place, luring them back is probably more difficult than cheap housing and a plethora of suburbs.
It’s comforting to believe there is one answer, a silver bullet that will solve Ohio’s brain drain problem. Yes, more local internships would be great, as would a downtown that is lively at all hours of the day and housing that an entry-level professional can afford. Different people value different aspects of cities, which makes the whole challenge of determining attracting young people that much more difficult. After all, nearly half of Ohio’s graduates plan to stay, so the situation isn’t completely hopeless.
Richard Florida and his research teams have done some interesting work on this question. One thing that strikes me about the research is its focus on something that is otherwise difficult to measure: vibrancy of social networks. When your friends are moving away or plan to skip town after college, that’s an important selling point that a city loses. Not that making new friends isn’t possible, but when faced with that proposition, it’s easy to think, “if I have to make new friends, I might as well do it in a place I really want to be.”