Heading South

Many Rust Belt states see students migrating out, generally to the Sun Belt, federal study finds. Should policy makers care?
March 14, 2006

The snowbird effect isn't just for senior citizens, a new Education Department study suggests.

Florida has the biggest in-migration of college students and New Jersey the biggest out-migration, according to the report released Monday by the National Center for Education Statistics, which compares the number of out of state first-year students who attended colleges in each state in 2004 with the number of that state's first-time undergraduates who enrolled in colleges elsewhere that year.

Florida's "net" migration was 19,786 students (32,299 out of state students enrolled in Florida's colleges, and 12,513 Florida residents enrolled in institutions elsewhere), while New Jersey's was -26,584 (5,264 out of state students enrolled at colleges there, and 32,208 New Jerseyans exited the state for college). New Jersey was one of 14 states that had net outward migration, almost all of which -- excluding Texas -- were from the northern half of the country.

And despite efforts in New Jersey and other states to combat a perceived "brain drain" problem, the situation has worsened in several places, as the table below suggests. Data from a previous NCES study show that the number of students flowing out of New Jersey more than doubled from 2000 to 2004, and that states such as Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Washington all saw their net outward migration grow. Several other states, such as Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin, went from having net in-migration to net out-migration.

States' Net Migration of Students, 2004 and 2000

State Net Migration, 2004 Net Migration, 2000
Alabama 4,959 6,459
Alaska -1,608 -1,723
Arizona 11,174 12,535
Arkansas 1,250 2,516
California 8,469 41,883
Colorado 1,956 6,430
Connecticut -4,858 -3,075
Delaware 1,308 2,052
D.C. 8,122 6,603
Florida 19,786 26,362
Georgia 3,122 4,873
Hawaii -366 -722
Idaho 309 12
Illinois -10,461 -7,761
Indiana 6,775 8,469
Iowa 8,118 6,932
Kansas 2,229 3,069
Kentucky 4,758 3,391
Louisiana 2,705 5,376
Maine -1,191 -201
Maryland -7,099 -2,795
Massachusetts 8,801 14,434
Michigan -426 2,385
Minnesota -1,882 2,539
Mississippi 2,763 2,764
Missouri 2,125 6,470
Montana -177 -210
Nebraska 93 710
Nevada -543 303
New Hampshire 521 3,040
New Jersey -26,584 -12,075
New Mexico -169 -911
New York 5,817 19,988
N. Carolina 9,860 10,117
N. Dakota 1,775 1,126
Ohio -1,220 8,835
Oklahoma 2,580 5,443
Oregon 1,930 2,625
Pennsylvania 12,846 18,476
Rhode Island 6,835 5,861
S. Carolina 3,459 3,777
S. Dakota 169 870
Tennessee 2,716 5,591
Texas -1,457 14,053
Utah 6,649 7,899
Vermont 1,487 1,801
Virginia 4,611 7,098
Washington -3,680 -1,777
W. Virginia 2,509 3,136
Wisconsin -1,060 1,549
Wyoming 1,838 -183

Some of the change, says Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis and assistant to the president at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, is related to the demographic shifts that the United States is seeing in the population at large, in terms of movement from Rust Belt states in the Northeast and Midwest to the Sun Belt.

But policy changes in individual states can also play a significant role, Reindl says. California experienced a huge drop from 2000 to 2004, probably driven by a series of fee increases (for in-state and out of state students alike) and enrollment caps during that period. And Texas, for instance, deregulated tuition and sharpened its focus on educating its own residents during that same period, he says.

Reindl notes, however, that while being a net exporter of students tends to be viewed as a negative, state officials can grow concerned if their states are attracting too many students, too; legislators in Wisconsin, for instance, have fought efforts to ease the tuition burden for residents of other states out of a fear that doing so would take enrollment slots away from Wisconsin's own.

The key, says Reindl, is for policy makers to know what the trendlines are in their states and understand what might be causing them. "If you're an exporter, you have to start asking the why question," he said: "Is it because the industrial base in the state isn't strong enough to attract people, or because you don't have the capacity" and have to turn students away?

"On either extreme, if you're a large net importer or net exporter, the big need is to understand what's going on," he said. "There may not be anything untoward, but it bears understanding."

Jeanne Oswald, deputy executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, says that officials in her state are divided on whether the outflow of students is a problem. The enrollment statistics clearly suggest that many more students are leaving the state than enrolling in its colleges from out of state, a trend driven both by the large number of high-quality colleges in surrounding states and the relatively small number of "seats" at institutions in the state. New Jersey has poured money into two merit scholarship programs in recent years to try to stem the perceived "brain drain."

But for every person who thinks this is a "terrible problem," says Oswald, others in the state "say it doesn't matter." They cite statistics that show New Jersey ranks eighth in the country in the proportion of adult residents who have bachelor's degrees, and fourth in the country in the number of adults with bachelor's degrees who migrated into the state between 1990 and 2000.

The Rest of the Report

The NCES report released Monday, "Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2004; Graduation Rates, 2001 Cohorts; and Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2004," also contains a slew of other statistics about the state of higher education in 2004.

Among highlights of the report:

  • Institutions that award federal financial aid enrolled 17.7 million students in the fall of 2004, up from 17.3 million in 2003. That growth occurred disproportionately at for-profit institutions, which saw their enrollments grow by 205,364, from 983,517 in 2003 to 1,188,881 in 2004. Public college enrollments rise by 116,804 (to 13,081,358 from 12,964,554), and private nonprofit institutions saw their student bodies grow to 3,440,559 from 3,381,391.
  • Black students made up 12.0 percent of the 17.7 million students enrolled in 2004, up from 11.8 percent of the 17.3 million students in 2003, and Hispanic students made up 10.0 percent of all students, up from 9.7 percent.
  • About 55 percent of all full-time students who enrolled in four-year institutions in 1998 earned degrees by 2004, and about 33 percent of those who entered community colleges in 2001 had graduated. Women were more likely to graduate than men, and students at private colleges graduated at somewhat higher rates than those at public ones.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top