Brain Gain in America’s Shrinking Cities

When we surveyed more than eight hundred college students six years ago, we found that most of them were planning to leave the state after graduation. This was a startling finding—and, recognizing its implications, Ohio leaders have made a concerted effort to retain college graduates (see here for an example). Meanwhile the job market has improved since the nadir of the Great Recession, making the Buckeye State a more attractive location for young people.

But what do the statistics say about Ohio’s ability to retain college-educated young people? According to a new Manhattan Institute analysis, a growing number of them reside in Ohio’s urban areas—what the author calls a “brain gain.” To arrive at this finding, the study focuses on twenty-eight U.S. cities that lost population and/or jobs from 2000 to 2013. Five metropolitan areas in Ohio fit those criteria: Akron, Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown. According to Census data, the number of college-educated young people—in the 25–34 age bracket and with at least a bachelor’s degree—increased in all five cities. Akron was the leader among Ohio cities with a 13 percent increase in college-educated young people, while Toledo was the laggard with an increase of just 1 percent. (When viewed as a share of the overall population, the fraction of college-educated young people is also rising.)

Before uncorking the champagne, we should provide some broader context: Are these increases keeping pace with national trends? (Educational attainment in the United States has risen substantially over time; see figure 7 here.) Sadly, for Dayton and Toledo, the answer is no—their increases fall short of the national trend. Meanwhile, the increases for Akron, Cleveland, and Youngstown outstrip the national average, though they still fall behind group leaders Pittsburgh, Scranton, and Buffalo.

The study’s author recently told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, “Places like Cleveland are better at attracting regional talent that might have skipped town [in past years].” Well said, at least in the case of Cleveland and the other Northeast Ohio cities. But retaining talented young people in the Dayton and Toledo areas remains a trouble spot—and one piece to solving that puzzle is growing high-quality schools that encourage young adults to stay and raise a family. If nothing is done, these cities will continue to falter as their counterparts in Ohio, regionally, and nationally zoom ahead.

Source: Aaron M. Renn, Brain Gain in America’s Shrinking Cities (New York, NY: Manhattan Institute, August 2015)

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.