Experts debate Michigan's perceived loss of talented graduates
With an auspicious new job and the electric pulse of urban life tugging at his mind, Vic Maurer grabbed his criminal justice diploma in 2006, packed his bags on a Sunday and moved into his new place by Monday to work at a Chicago political consulting firm.
Now the assistant director of clubs at the Northwestern Alumni Association and a former president of Chicago’s MSU Alumni Club, Maurer said graduates move for many reasons, but there’s a common thread.
“Career opportunities are often the most frequently cited reason, but really, I think it comes down to a broader picture of opportunity,” Maurer said. “It’s a chance to live in a big city … (and) blaze your own trail.”
Aside from being part of a network of more than 19,000 MSU alumni living in Chicago, he’s also part of a bigger trend of college graduates fleeing the state for greener pastures — something that worries many state lawmakers and economists, who lament the migratory wishes of the young and educated taking their talent and ambition elsewhere.
But statistics show that more grads are staying in Michigan as the economy improves, and some experts argue that concern about “brain drain,” as many call the trend, is misplaced, or outright misperception.
March of the brains
MSU pumps out roughly 8,000 degree-holders a year, and in 2012, 61 percent found jobs in Michigan, according to university data. About 77 percent of MSU graduates remained in the Midwest.
Statewide, public universities handed out more than 60,000 degrees a year for the last five years, according to a new study from the Detroit Regional Chamber. Of those graduates, 37 percent left, but a majority of 63 percent stayed in Michigan, up 12 percent from 2007, when only 51 percent stayed six months after graduation.
Still, a number of state legislators are pushing or heralding statutory incentives aimed at keeping more “brains” in-state.
State demographer Ken Darga, along with some other experts, argues that brain drain isn’t a problem anymore, citing the improving out-migration rates since 2008, ranked 19th in the nation.
“Just about every state has a widespread perception of brain drain,” Darga said. “People look at migration rates for college graduates and for non-college graduates and they say ‘Gosh, a lot of people are leaving’ … we’re not losing so much, we’re attracting few people from other states.”
Michigan is almost dead-last in attracting people from other states, with in-migration rates ranked 48th in the nation.
“If there is a problem, it is more a problem of low in-migration, rather than high out-migration,” said Charles Ballard, an economics professor at MSU. “In any event, if we want a stronger economy, it will help if we can attract college graduates from other places, and retain the ones who are already here.”
“Young college graduates don’t just want a job,” he said. “They also want parks and theaters and restaurants.”
Michigan used to have a much higher out-migration rate among bachelors degree holders: 6.9 percent, or 38th in the nation, from 2007 to 2011.
“We had this big erosion in population during the middle part of the decade before everybody else got hit,” said Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at MSU. “Those young people that we lost may never come back.”
“2008 just slammed it,” he said, when the economy took a disastrous tumble that the state still is reeling from.
Now, when college graduates decide to move out-of-state, if they’re not going to Chicago or staying in the Midwest, many will go to Washington D.C., New York or California, Gardner said.
But since 2012, most have stayed in Michigan.
Reason for concern or not?
Although in-and-out migration rates have improved in the last few years, many lawmakers and other experts don’t share Darga’s cavalier attitude.
“It’s definitely a significant problem,” said Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor. “It’s one of those things where…we should be doing everything we can … to attract more and more young people, regardless of what the statistics say.”
People leave for lots of reasons, Zemke says, from a lack of adequate public transit and the state’s sluggish economy to a perception that Michigan’s cities just aren’t as vibrant as larger ones like New York or Chicago.
An MSU alumnus himself, Zemke said cities need the whole package to keep and attract young people: good mass transit, a bustling downtown, strong schools and proper public safety.
He pointed to Ann Arbor as a home-grown example.
The one thing the city doesn’t have is a commuter railway going to and from Detroit, he said.
He introduced a bill to make that easier, since getting new projects approved by the Regional Transit Authority requires unanimous board approval, which he says is a difficult process.
Zemke said public programs are one way to attract and retain young professionals.
And so far, he’s got bipartisan support for the bill))/mileg.aspx?page=getobject&objectname=2013-HB-4794.
While serving his term as East Lansing’s mayor, MSU alumnus Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, tried instituting a number of reforms to offer more downtown housing, upscale restaurants and an organization called the Grand River Connection to attract more young professionals.
He said he wanted to show people “that it’s not just a college town, or a town for families.”
Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, is exploring other legal avenues.
He wants to offer a tax credit to graduates to help them pay off student loans, something he thinks could encourage them to stay in Michigan.
Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, has an almost identical bill in the House, which Singh co-sponsored.
Zemke, along with many others, sees Detroit’s revitalization as key to the state’s own revival.
“Have I definitely thought about leaving? Absolutely.”
What kept him around — like many young people moving to Detroit — was a desire to be part of reshaping Michigan, now something of a “blank canvas,” he says.
Check out our map of where MSU graduates have landed according to a 2013 university report in which a total of 2,476 out of almost 6,000 graduates reported their employment location: