Pa. attracts college students, but getting them to stay after graduation is a challenge

     Students head to class at the University of Scranton. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Students head to class at the University of Scranton. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    A new study shows that students graduating from universities in northeastern Pa. aren’t likely to stick around afterwards. 

    Across the state, students are wrapping up internships and summer jobs, signing up for fall classes and preparing for another school year at one of Pennsylvania’s 200+ colleges and universities.

    But once they graduate, how many of those students will stay in the area where they were educated?

    Ten colleges in northeastern Pa. recently did a study looking at just that, and the results were a bit alarming. Only 27 percent of students plan to stay in the region, and a full 40 percent said they were sure that they wanted to leave and find employment elsewhere.

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    This migration is known as “brain drain,” where the best and the brightest take their skills, college degrees and tax dollars elsewhere.

    “If they stay local, they are paying taxes, they are growing the economy and they are creating jobs in other sectors, just by being there,” says Teri Ooms, executive director of The Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development at Wilkes University, which put out the study.

    All states face some degree of brain drain, but Pennsylvania is uniquely positioned to feel the effects. For one thing, a large number of top institutions draw a lot of students from out of state, a group that is more likely to leave again after school is over.

    In 2008, the Digest of Education Statistics looked at college-driven migration. Pennsylvania saw about 16,000 high school students go to college elsewhere — a form of brain drain. But over 30,000 students moved into the state to attend college. Not only did Pennsylvania have the highest number of students coming to school here, it also had the highest net number of students — they gained a lot more than they lost.

    Christopher Sutzko, the director of career planning at Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, says those numbers are great for the local economy.

    “Those students and families spend money, they’re staying in the hotels, they are buying services and products from our region,” says Sutzko.

    But not so great for job-seekers who want to stay in the region after graduation.

    “There just aren’t enough viable, appropriate professional positions to sustain the number of graduates graduating from our institution,” he says. “It’s brain drain because of overflow.”

    Which is why he doesn’t balk at helping students find jobs out of state. He says he’d prefer to see a bit of brain drain than what he calls “brain rot” — people staying local but being underemployed.

    Northeast Pennsylvania isn’t the only region in the state that sees post-grad migration. For years, Pittsburgh saw a big outflow of talent, like any area with a large number of university grads and a small number of job openings. Recently, though, Pittsburgh’s been countering that trend.

    By growing the “eds and meds” sector, Pittsburgh recently became the second best city for brain gain, after Boston. It has seen population growth and the average age of city residents decrease. As one regional economist, Chris Briem, tweeted in 2013: “Maybe I need to issue a press release: City of Pittsburgh now younger than the U.S.”

    That’s what Ooms, from The Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development, wants for northeastern Pa. She says the region has been seeing a lot of job growth recently, and if graduates used their degrees here, there could be even more.

    “The millennial generation that is graduating from college now is more entrepreneurial,” she says. “We’ve seen start-ups come out of the accelerator [a small-business development space] in downtown Wilkes-Barre. But if students don’t know that there are opportunities like that here in town, they’ll take their ideas elsewhere.”

    She’d like to see more partnerships between businesses and the universities in the area, citing the 33 percent of students who were undecided on their post-grad plans. She thinks better marketing of local job opportunities is a way to capture those graduates before they find jobs elsewhere.

    The study also found that over half of the students in the region planned to go to graduate school. If northeastern Pa. doesn’t have relevant or competitive graduate programs, that can be a reason that students leave the region — and don’t come back.

    The solution to brain drain is always going to be adding more jobs for educated college graduates. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for some creative recruitment: State Rep. Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia, recently proposed keeping bars open until 4 a.m. to appeal to young people considering moving or staying here.

    The logic, I’m guessing, is that anyone who can stay out at a bar until 4 a.m and hold down a job is truly Pennsylvania’s best and brightest.

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