Every December, highly educated young people load up their Toyotas and hop on airplanes to spend the holidays with their families. This year was no exception. For a week or two, libraries and laboratories across the country went quiet. The lights went off in Manhattan editorial offices and advertising agencies; Washington’s government bureaucracies ground to a halt; and Northern California’s venture capital firms and tech companies stopped making deals. At the same time, business picked up at small-town bars and breakfast joints across the country, as all of those academics, editors, lawyers, and engineers reconnected with their families and scattered high school classmates.
I used to think of the holiday season -- with its cloying carols, crowded sidewalks, and inevitable sugar headaches -- as an annual nightmare. But these days, my view of the season has shifted. While I’m still not a fan, I’ve come to appreciate how Christmas temporarily desegregates the American population.
That’s a statement that needs some explanation. “Segregation” is intimately tied to race in American vocabulary, but race is not the only way in which America is segregated. In fact, over the last several decades, residential racial segregation -- the tendency of African-American and white families to live in the same neighborhood -- has declined substantially. That doesn’t mean that spatial inequalities have disappeared. Despite the progress that we’ve made, many cities remain highly racially segregated. Despite the progress that we’ve made on racial desegregation, economic segregation -- poor and affluent families’ propensity to live near one another -- hasn’t budged. Furthermore, during the last few decades a whole new form of residential segregation has emerged. I call it educational segregation: College graduates have become increasingly clustered in a handful of places, while large swathes of America experience a long, drawn-out brain drain.
This is the form of segregation that I have in mind when I say that the holidays temporarily desegregate the American population. Every December, holiday cheer pushes young college graduates out of America’s creative cities and college towns and back to their hometowns across the country.
Much of my research has been dedicated to documenting educational segregation. My interest has autobiographical roots. I was born and raised in Madison County, Nebraska (where 17 percent of adults had a B.A. or higher degree in 2000). Like most of my friends, I always knew that success meant leaving town, and that’s exactly what I did. I went to college in central Connecticut (where 34 percent of adults held B.A.'s) and graduate school in Manhattan (the 13th most highly educated county in the U.S., with a B.A. concentration of 49 percent). My current gig has me living in a faculty ghetto in central New Jersey (where each and every one of my neighbors has a postgraduate degree). But I’m a social scientist, not a memoirist, and I’m primarily interested in the ways in which educational segregation shapes inequality and opportunity in American life. My research suggests that educationally selective migration is fundamentally altering America’s social geography, and that this change has consequences that we are only beginning to understand.
Some of these consequences are positive. Economic research provides strong evidence to suggest that the spatial concentration of human capital stimulates economic growth. As anybody who has ever had a successful collaboration with the colleague down the hall can tell you, causal conversation over the coffee machine can often lead to real breakthroughs. Turns out, the same thing happens in regional economics. When smart people cluster together, innovation occurs, productivity rises, and growth occurs. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Thanks to educational segregation, the cities and college towns in which many of us live have become bright spots in the American economy. And even those of us who live outside these bright spots benefit to some extent from advances that take place when highly educated people rub shoulders.
But educational segregation is a zero-sum game. For every booming human capital hub, there are dozens of brain drain communities, and for these communities educational segregation can be disastrous. While brain drain is not exclusively a rural phenomenon, the picture is particularly bleak for rural America. In any given year, more than 6 percent of America’s non-metropolitan B.A. holders migrate to a metropolitan area. Economic growth has stalled in these brain drain communities. In the worst cases, communities are left with insufficient medical care and limited educational opportunities, as they find themselves unable to replace retiring small-town doctors and teachers. There’s no reason why college graduates need to be distributed equally across the United States. But deepening educational segregation closes off opportunities for people born into brain drain communities, creating new social and economic inequalities.
So how do we break the vicious cycle of educational segregation or at least mitigate its worse consequences? I’m generally a big believer in the transformative power of education, but for all the benefits that college-goers get from higher education, state investments in higher education don’t do much to keep talent in brain drain communities. Since human capital is mobile, places can’t educate their way out of educational segregation. The nation’s two most highly educated states -- Connecticut and Massachusetts -- rank 33th and 48th respectively on per capita higher education funding. And all but two of the of the 10 states that spent the most per capita on higher education in the early 1990s experienced net brain drain between 1990 and 2000. In a sense, by putting money into public higher education, my home state of Nebraska is underwriting the out-migration of its most talented young people and subsidizing economic growth in the places they end up.
Economist Richard Florida advocates a “creative cities” approach, urging communities on the losing end of educational segregation to cultivate the cultural amenities and social tolerance that highly educated youth value. This advice turns the common-sense logic of regional economic planning on its head. While planners have traditionally focused on getting businesses to locate in their communities, reasoning that jobs will attract workers; Florida has been convincing planners to focus their attention on attracting the highly-educated “creative class”, arguing that these workers make jobs for themselves and others. Based on the Florida model, the city of Memphis is busily organizing arts festivals and rezoning neighborhoods to allow sidewalk cafes in an attempt to attract highly educated migrants and stimulate economic growth. This effort is almost certainly better than nothing, but my research suggests that neither amenities nor jobs attract college graduates to human capital hubs. The big lure is the presence of other college graduates. Furthermore, even if Memphis does manage to make itself a human capital hub, chances are it’ll be snatching its college graduates from the surrounding countryside, not New York, Washington, or Raleigh-Durham. Building new creative cities may only aggravate educational segregation overall.
A third approach leverages student financial aid incentives to slow brain drain. With college tuition growing at a rate that outpaces both inflation and the availability of financial aid, and student loan programs rapidly replacing grant programs, several states successfully used student debt relief programs to fill local occupational shortages. But recently, policy-makers have become more ambitious with these plans. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has proposed a merit-based scholarship program that would give high-achieving Indiana high school graduates $20,000 a year for tuition and living expenses, as long as they promised to stay in the state for three years after graduation. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), meanwhile, thinks that slowing brain drain is the federal government’s job. Under his New Homestead Act, the government would pay off college loans, provide tax credits, mortgage assistance, and business start-up funds for people who settle in depopulating rural counties.
There’s definitely an element of pork-barrel politics to Dorgan’s New Homestead Act. But short of declaring every day Christmas, it strikes me as our best available approach to slowing educational segregation. The problems associated with uneven talent flows are best addressed at the federal level, rather than the state level. Brain drain states’ educational investments subsidize growth in brain gain states, so it seems only fair that brain drain communities should help solve the problems that educational segregation creates. The New Homestead Act’s incentives probably aren’t enough to reverse educational segregation trends. (After all, how many 22-year-olds decide where to live based on their marginal income tax rate?) But for young adults who are committed to staying their hometowns, but wonder what good a college education can do them there, the New Homestead Act would be a boon, likely raising educational attainment rates and helping brain drain communities hold onto local talent. If we care about equality of opportunity in America, those are both important things to do.
Thurston Domina is a research associate at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in sociology last year from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is currently hunting for a tenure track job in a place with plenty of sidewalk cafes.Â