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The Talent Migration Paradox

Better to develop people and have them leave than to attract and retain college graduates.
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Denver, Colorado. (Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

Denver, Colorado. (Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

Raising a region's college educational attainment rate has become a holy grail of economic development efforts. Theoretically, instead of the usual people following jobs, employers will move where talent wants to live. Boondoggles abound as real estate developers make their pitch to place fickle Millennials. In Denver, drunk and lazy on migration:

While a magnet for those who acquire skills elsewhere, the city has struggled more to elevate its own young people, nearly half of whom are now minorities. "We call this The Colorado Paradox," John Hickenlooper, the former mayor of Denver and now the state's Democratic governor, told me recently. "We have about the highest percentage of people with college degrees in the country, yet we have real challenges with large portions of our population in getting them to complete high school and then attend and get through college."

The rising tide of smart people to Colorado does little to raise the boats of natives. The best educated leave amenity-rich communities along the Front Range just as they do everywhere else. The built environment serves those who don't live there.

Good policies or bad, the Creative Class keeps coming to Colorado. Politicians parade the positive metrics. What's the secret?

For those willing to take credit for the Colorado Miracle should own up to the "Colorado Paradox." Newcomers will do well wherever they go. They don't require assistance.

Stayers do require assistance. While Colorado does great at attracting talent, physical geography deserves most of the credit. The state stinks at developing people. For those born with a silver spoon in their mouths, Joe Cortright promises a talent dividend. Inheritors of good fortune will live well in Colorado and masquerade as economic progress.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.