Reversing the Brain Drain

Cities are starting to use scholarships to local colleges to keep promising young people from moving away.
July 2007
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

My daughter is in high school, but she is spending the summer attending our local community college--getting a leg up on her advanced high school courses and maybe college as well. There's no telling what she'll do when college time rolls around in two years, but one scenario goes like this: She goes to the community college-- free.

That's because the nonprofit foundation supporting our local community college now pays all tuition and fees for any resident of my town who goes there. The main goal is social equity: to make sure that all kids in our town have access to college no matter the family income. But there's an important economic development goal as well: to train local kids for local jobs and, just as important, try to get the kids to stick around.

Institutions of higher learning have always played an important role in the economic growth of communities. They are stable employers, rooted in the community; they have jobs of all kinds; and they pay good wages. In addition, they attract college-age migrants who by definition are highly educated and often decide to stay in town. In the best of all worlds--Silicon Valley, for example--the graduates create successful spin-off businesses that drive the local economy.

Recently, however, we've seen a new twist on this old theme: scholarships designed not to attract college students from elsewhere but to get promising young people to stay put.

The scholarship program at my local community college is one example. Our California beach town has very high housing prices and a lot of low-wage jobs, meaning that kids looking for mid-level jobs-- machinists, nurses, entry-level office workers--go elsewhere to live. The theory is that if they can get training for mid-level jobs locally, they'll make more contacts and decide to stay. It's a way to stem the brain drain.

In other parts of the country, the brain drain is a much more serious problem because college-age kids perceive so little economic opportunity. And so the efforts to counteract the brain drain have to be much more aggressive.

Perhaps the best example in the Rust Belt these days is Kalamazoo, an aging and struggling industrial Michigan city. Its economy and population are flat, while suburban flight continues. The result is very little demand for housing or anything else in the city itself.

At least that was the result until a group of local philanthropists got together with the city school district to create the Kalamazoo Promise. Now, any student who enters the city school system no later than 9th grade gets a college scholarship--100 percent for kids who've been in Kalamazoo their whole lives, 65 percent for those who move there for high school. Half of the city's 472 June graduates will get a free college ride, but there's a geographical catch: They get the scholarship only if they go to a state-supported public university or community college in Michigan.

The benefit is twofold. Kalamazoo kids stay in the state for college, and Kalamazoo creates a market for residents. A large homebuilder in the state is now focusing more attention on the city, hoping to build homes for families interested in the Kalamazoo Promise.

Some folks in the Rust Belt believe that keeping their kids at home isn't possible. School administrators in the Northeast and Midwest often say that the best they can hope for is to make sure local kids get a decent education before they move away. But giving a financial break for a geographical preference is an old idea in education--and a successful one. In fact, I took advantage of it twice--on opposite sides of the country.

When I graduated from high school in New York State, I received a Regents Scholarship--worth $250 per year--that was redeemable only inside the state. The Regents Scholarship more than offset my community college costs, and when I went away to a four-year private university, I defrayed the cost by using the same scholarship. That kept me in the state for the first part of my working career.

Later, after I had established residency in California, I took advantage of the famous in-state tuition break to get a graduate degree at the University of California at a fraction of its market value. That education and the contacts I made getting it have kept me in California ever since.

I don't know where my daughter will decide to go to college, but I do know that the combination of price and geography will be a factor.