Skip to main content

The Futility of Trying to Attract (and Retain) College Graduates

The young and well educated are moving to the largest cities. They don't care about a lower cost of living or cool amenities.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: Zach Stern/Flickr)

(Photo: Zach Stern/Flickr)

Since 1970, the smartest metros have attracted more and more college graduates. The distribution of talent is divergent, concentrating in a few places. That divergence has gone hand-in-hand with economic prosperity. Thus, every city or town aimed to attract and retain people sporting at least a bachelor's degree.

Not for the lack of trying everything and anything, brain drain continued to vex the losers. Which raises the question, why do college graduates move where they move? Seemingly begging the question, smart people moved to where smart people lived. That was the 1990s. Dr. Michael R. Betz gives reason to the brain-gain rhyme:

“It seemed like a case of the rich getting richer,” Betz said. But this new study found that it was actually certain “smart” industries – ones that hired greater-than-average shares of college grads – that were attracting more grads to certain cities.

“So new college grads weren’t necessarily attracted to these cities just because they had more college-educated residents like themselves – they were following these fast-growing industries.”

Smart people followed smart jobs, not the other way around. Because of that, producing more college graduates locally didn't do much to boost the educational attainment rate. Whatever the policy in Pittsburgh, talent from Carnegie Mellon University would head to Austin.

Again, that was the 1990s. Betz and company figured out everything changed in the 2000s. Speculate away as to why, the magnetism shifted from brain job centers to the largest population centers. Between the two decades, the geography of talent migration was dramatically different.

Whatever the time frame, the ubiquitous aim to capture more college graduates amounted to shouting into the void. Missing from the conversation is how the target demographic makes a relocation decision. Missing from the conversation is a rigorous analysis of migration.

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