Ohio undergrads tell state leaders what's on their minds

The Fordham Institute's latest report on how young Ohioans view their state-it's really nice but they are looking for jobs and Ohio is hurting on this front-has received an astounding reception. The report, Losing Ohio's Future: Why college graduates flee the Buckeye State and what might be done about it (see here), struck a chord with lawmakers, business leaders, higher education officials, citizens, and the news media because it gives some hard numbers to a problem that everyone recognizes but can't quite put their fingers on.

From Cleveland to Cincinnati, Toledo to Columbus, major and minor newspapers and dozens of television and radio stations carried reports for several days (see here, here, and here) after the survey was released June 15. Fordham officials and the survey's analyst Steve Farkas were extensively quoted (see here) and the story was picked up nationally in Detroit, New York City, Hartford, and other places.

Fordham contracted with the New York City-based FDR Group to conduct the survey, which is believed to be the first to utilize an Internet social-networking site to reach respondents where they spend much of their time. Using Facebook and random samples provided by colleges, the FDR Group interviewed 811 sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Case Western Reserve University, Kent State University, Miami University, Oberlin College, Ohio State University, Ohio University, and University of Dayton. The results, however, could probably be extended to graduates of all of Ohio's four-year public and private colleges and universities.

The survey fleshes out the idea of the "brain drain" that has been buffeting Ohio for at least a quarter century but has been receiving increased attention in the last decade (see here, here, and here). However, the results are especially disturbing given the state's recession-bashed economy, 10-percent unemployment rate (more than 600,000 people on unemployment rolls), the loss of 235,000 jobs in the last year alone, and attempts to boost not only Ohio's education system but its high-technology future with massive Third Frontier spending and a focus on green technologies.

According to the report, 58 percent of undergraduates surveyed plan to leave the state after graduation. Broken down, the numbers are tough-51 percent of native Ohioan undergraduates expect to leave while 79 percent of non-Ohioan undergrads expect to leave when they get their diplomas. The undergraduates are looking for jobs that offer a future. They are also looking to live in a place that is "active, exciting and fun." Ohio fares poorly on both in the eyes of college students.

The fact that the survey generated so much attention indicates that a critical mass may be developing among Ohioans and their leaders to do something about the loss of our best-and-brightest, an issue which cuts across party and ideological lines. Ohio may be down, along with many other Midwestern states (see here) but we're not out. The fact that nine of the 15 metropolitan areas with the largest decline in economic output were in Florida, Michigan, and Ohio, according to Moody's (see here), is a call to action.

Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut called the Fordham report "timely" and its findings have resonated with politicians of both parties. Ironically, the survey comes as the lawmakers are considering cutting a far-reaching expansion of the state's college internship program-exactly the kind of program that undergraduates say can lead to the jobs that would be a reason for them to stay in Ohio. This year, the state is providing internship funding for more than 46,000 students who can learn about a future career and obtain college credit at the same time (see here).

"We feel very strongly that this program ... could really leapfrog Ohio. ... It could make Ohio one of the most top-rated states in terms of the linkage of jobs for our graduates through internships," said Fingerhut, who wants to at least double internship numbers by 2017 (see here).

The program, however, is now a choice between short-term demands and what's needed for the future. Chancellor Fingerhut will have to convince lawmakers (many of whom support the effort), who are struggling to cut $3.2 billion from the state's biennial budget, that this program is indeed worth $50 million a year over five years.

Students make it clear they are worried about jobs. Nearly nine in 10 Ohio college students (89 percent) say good jobs and career opportunities will be the decider in determining where to live during the first few years after graduation. Yet only 11 percent of them view Ohio as a good prospect on this front. Ohio, the students believe, has a serious image problem.

The report came out a week after National Cash Register (NCR) announced it is leaving Fordham's hometown of Dayton, the city where John Patterson founded the company in 1884. Dayton was already shell-shocked from the loss of tens of thousands of jobs from General Motors and other manufacturers, so the Fordham study especially rang true there. The reason NCR said it was leaving? It would be easier hire and retain workers in Georgia (see here).

That stings.

But other states have their own technology programs, which tends to level the playing field. Georgia has an especially active one. The state has been pumping money into science research and development for years. Graduates also have their own ideas of what makes a nice place to live after work. Some of these desires were a surprise to Ohio leaders.

"They don't really care as much as we thought about the cost of living," said Dayton entrepreneur Mike Ervin, who is spearheading a movement to revitalize that city's urban core. He made the comment at a meeting of city leaders called to discuss the survey results at a meeting hosted jointly by the University of Dayton and the Fordham Institute (see here). "They want a cool funky place. A strong central city is important," Ervin said "They go to these (other) urban centers because they offer the lifestyle that graduates want."

Employers, like NCR, are paying attention and are moving to where well-educated young people want to live and work. Community boosters in Dayton look around and see a nice place to set roots. However, the Fordham survey indicates that there is a major disconnect between the students on campus and their surrounding communities. Students don't necessarily know how nice the college towns are or what kind of parks and cultural attractions are just down the block or around the corner from campus, let alone what jobs there are in the community for them.

So, how do we keep these young graduates here?

"You have to reach out and engage them aggressively," former Gov. Bob Taft told the gathering in Dayton. The state, however, has to have something to offer and the students provided some ideas through the survey.

There is a huge need to "market the region" was a call made by many who read the Fordham report and commented on it. Ohio's major cities don't have mountains or seashores so city leaders must make young people aware of the benefits of living here. There's no better time to do that when they are in the state attending college. "In Boston if you are out at 5 p.m. on any weekday it's wall-to-wall young people. They're flirting and socializing. We do not have that in Dayton. The only counter to it is to make jobs exciting," said Matt Diggs, a retired Dayton business executive. Still, there is an awful lot of culture, lively arts, restaurants, and nightlife in the state, including in once-proud manufacturing and technology centers.

Thomas Matthews, director of Case Western Reserve University's Career Center, told a Cleveland television reporter internships are very helpful in getting students to test the waters and learn about the surrounding community.

"I'm from Florida. Cleveland and Ohio have so much to offer, the best medical system, Playhouse, and the best universities in the nation," a Case Western student told the reporter. That's music to the ears of state boosters.

But another student told the Cleveland Plain Dealer (see here) that with jobs scarce, he would go wherever he could find work. Right now, he's an intern at the Diebold company and has his fingers crossed it turns into a permanent job, right here in Ohio.

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