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What happens to places that export most of their talented young people?

Serious stagnation, if not worse.

This is where community colleges can serve a purpose better than anyone else. Their graduates tend to stay in the local area.

Recent IPEDS data -- I know, I know, but still -- shows that New Jersey has one of the highest rates of high school graduates going to college out of state. That has been true for a long time.  

I suspect it’s largely a function of the economic geography of the state. It combines one of the highest per-capita incomes in the country with the highest population density in the country; that tends to put a squeeze on affordable housing. Compared to most states, it has an unusual number of people who work outside the state, drawn mostly to the New York or Philadelphia metros. It’s a hard place to start a family, given the cost of housing and the relative disconnect between local income levels and local salaries. (High NYC salaries drive up prices in areas where local salaries don’t scale.)  

Every state exports some young people, and that’s fine. If a kid from Maryland gets into Harvard or Stanford and wants to go, I don’t see a political crisis in allowing it. But when a state or a region exports too many, and particularly of its highest achievers, it sets itself up for trouble.  

The whole “creative class” line of argument made famous by Richard Florida caught on because it explained something we’ve all seen: places that import lots of ambitious young people prosper. That can become self-reinforcing over time.  My back-of-the-envelope test for whether an area is on the right track is whether it attracts significant numbers of young people who move there before they’ve found work. Moving to accept an offer is one thing; moving without an offer shows real interest in being in a given area.  

The IPEDS data suggest that more young people want out of New Jersey than want in.

From a policy perspective, I could imagine a few possible responses.

One would be indifference.  It’s easy and cheap in the short run, but over time, it doesn’t lead anywhere good.

Another would be some sort of coercion. But that tends to backfire; the most ambitious students are the ones likeliest to escape. And that’s leaving aside a whole set of moral issues.

I’d favor making the place more appealing as a destination. Given that talented young people have choices, the best way to attract or keep them is to make the place a more attractive choice.  Make it likelier that the next wave of entrepreneurs will set up shop here.

The fastest, easiest, lowest-cost way to do that would be to make the community and state colleges stronger. Give the high-achieving high school grad a reason to stick around, and give the high-achieving high school grad from a neighboring state a reason to come over.  

The advantage to this strategy is that the infrastructure is already in place. It wouldn’t require solving much more intractable issues. And it wouldn’t even rely initially on getting the word out in other states. Just doing a better job of keeping the young people who are already here would make a difference. We already know that community college grads are likely to stay in the local area, so you’d get a labor-force payoff quickly. Strengthen the four-year sector as well, and the payoff could be even greater. The scale of investment wouldn’t have to be all that high, though it would have to be sustained over time. That includes during recessions.

When I worked in New Jersey in the previous decade, it exported scads of young people. Upon returning, I notice it’s still doing the same. How’s that working out?

It’s time to try something different. The data tell the tale.  


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