Can Ohio Turn the Tables on “Brain Drain”?

Although Rust Belt states have traditionally struggled to retain their college graduates, new data suggests that Ohio might be set to reverse the “brain drain” that has plagued the region for decades. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

Brain drain.” If you live in the Rust Belt, you’ve probably heard the phrase used to describe the economic woes of your city or state’s dwindling workforce. By definition, it’s a slang term used to describe the out-migration of a highly educated workforce on a local, state and even national level. (Its opposite is, cleverly, “brain gain.”) Ohio, home to the sixth most colleges in the nation, has been painted as a perennial loser in this game of talent retention. But recent data trends suggest that Ohio might be on its way to turning the tables.

Midwest states are among those long familiar with the struggle to retain educated young people. A recent study by the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee revealed an unsurprising pattern: states in the Rust Belt (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri) along with other states in the New England, Plains and Southeast regions are struggling both in retaining their homegrown college grads and drawing those from other states, while states along the Boston-Washington corridor, on the West Coast and some other regions across the country (Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Arizona and Hawaii) are retaining and drawing highly-educated adults.

It’s no accident that the geographic patterns for brain drain coincide with economic development. The rocky recovery of the Rust Belt economy and the dwindling resources of rural areas have led communities into cycles of workforce loss and disinvestment: rural regions in the West and the Midwest face ongoing depopulation and an outsized share of residents without college degrees as educated individuals leave for better job opportunities, and those places, in turn, don’t have the workforce necessary to draw in further corporate investment (the kinds of jobs people are leaving for).

Although net domestic migration in the Midwest is still negative, this trend of depopulation seems to be abating in some metro areas. According to U.S. census data, the Midwest’s net domestic migration from 2019 to 2020 was a loss of 207,685; from 2020 to 2021, the loss was 123,103 — an 84,582 net domestic migration increase between the two time periods. In other words, the region is still losing people, but fewer than it did in the past.

Ohio, in particular, is showing some positive traction in attracting new residents. Dayton Daily News reported millions of Americans moved during the pandemic and Ohio was “among the top relocation destinations” and ranked fourth in the nation in migration growth during 2020. While Ohio’s net migration remains negative, the general trend shows that the gap has shrunk compared to the early 2010s, with some variations year to year. 

While most metro areas in Ohio continue to depopulate — except for Columbus, holding steady as a government center with a thriving university — some of them are showing signs of progress. The Cleveland-Akron-Canton region is a good example: while net migration overall is still negative, Cleveland-Akron-Canton is among the top Combined Statistical Areas (CSA) with the largest net domestic migration increase from 2019 - 2020 to 2020 - 2021, nearly halving its net migration loss from 10,752 to 5,921.

Furthermore, in Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland and the surrounding area, the working adult population grew by 2% from 2010 to 2020 even though the total population in the county fell by 1.2%, suggesting that the Cleveland area could be becoming more attractive to working-age individuals.

So what’s Ohio doing that’s changing the game?

First, Ohio is attracting more out-of-state students for college. Ohio’s net migration of first-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students has been increasing from data tracing as far back as 2010, indicating more out-of-state college students are coming to Ohio for college than in-state college students migrating out of Ohio for college. 

“We used to be an exporting state, and now we are an importing state. Ohio institutions have significantly increased their out-of-state enrollment,” Todd Jones, President and General Counsel of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio (AICUO), said. “In some cases, graduate programs retain them into the program, or they find other opportunities to continue working with the institution.”

Second, Ohio is doing comparatively better than most states in retaining its college graduates. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Ohio ranks 18th nationwide in keeping its college grads, with a -12.2% net loss when comparing college grads living in Ohio and college grads produced in Ohio; while Ohio is still producing more graduates than it’s retaining, it’s doing relatively better than most states. (It’s also important to remember that states with net gains often produce relatively fewer college graduates, making the percentages inflated.)

Third, according to Census Postsecondary Employment Outcomes data, 79% of college grads choose to stay in Ohio one year after graduation. The data also shows that graduates are more likely to stay in Ohio for employment in the few years immediately following graduation whereas the likelihood decreases as more years go by. Jones attributes this in part to Ohio’s recent progress in building a stronger economy and providing more post-graduate job opportunities. 

“[T]he state economically is doing better than it had been over the previous 20 years,” he said. 

New opportunities and companies are building up Ohio’s new economy, whether it be Intel’s $20 billion investment, Honda’s battery factory or clusters of insurance companies, “these kinds of job attractors in modern Ohio are significant and our reason people can stay,” Jones said.

Lastly, as home to 155 degree-granting postsecondary institutions, ranking the sixth highest in the nation and offering more postsecondary options than most other states, Ohio has a tremendous potential talent pool. In 2022 alone, Ohio had 132,360 college grads, ranking seventh behind California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

While interstate migration among college graduates is common, some states are convincing graduates to stay in state with incentives like student loan forgiveness and tax credits. Ohio, according to Jones, is “sort of in an era of public policy experimentation in that area.” 

“There’s been a concerted effort by the state to reduce the relatively high individual income taxes; that is certainly a deterrent,” Jones said. 

In 2021, the Ohio House of Representatives introduced the Graduating and Retaining Ohio’s Workforce (GROW) Act, which focuses on college recruitment, degree advancement, business-education partnerships and workforce retention. Another effort is the Ohio Housing Finance Agency's (OHFA) Grants for Grads, which provides a discounted mortgage interest rate to recent graduates.

Moving forward, how can Ohio keep the momentum? It’s not just about higher education, “although that’s certainly a piece of it,” Jones said. 

A 2005 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland also cautioned that retaining college graduates should be contextualized within a larger goal to maintain a well-educated workforce. And, of course, when Ohio’s economy is growing, the state is in a better position to retain college graduates.

Furthermore, two-year community college grads are more likely to stay in-state for employment than four-year college grads. Jones speculated that it’s because the demographic data of students who go to four-year colleges and two-year community colleges are different. For community colleges, a small fraction of their students come from out of state, and students are more likely to stay within the state if they are originally from there.

“That’s just a truism of emigration and immigration demographics,” Jones said. 

Jones also noted that extremely urban and extremely rural areas suffer the most from insufficient numbers of people with college degrees. Students in those areas are also more likely to be low-income. 

But, If there is investment in education in these areas, “[these students] are more likely to stay than getting somebody from a suburban area to move to a rural area,” Jones said. “[M]any of the people who are seeking that degree are seeking it because they want to connect it to a particular job in their particular community,” he added.

In some areas, however, Ohio could benefit from improvement.

“[Ohio] does less to provide for low-income families to attend college than any state in the region,” Jones said. “and yet we in Ohio have been merely making measured progress over the last few years.” 

In the end, retaining or even drawing college grads from other states is realistic with a healthy and vibrant economic environment. And according to some experts, Ohio is on the right track — especially if the state can attract more investments like Intel’s.

“But that didn't just happen. That had to be built over time [and] from the ground up,” Jones said. “And in the ground up situation, you need that supply of people who are able to meet the needs of the market. And that's why having more educated folks in your community leads to those kinds of successes.”

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