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Are we losing our minds?

A graduation season guide to discussing Rhode Island's so-called "brain drain"
By PHILIP EIL  |  May 21, 2014

 0523_Cover_Siegel_top.jpg
HE STUCK AROUND Siedel, at the Business Innovation Factory. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

It’s college graduation season in Rhode Island, which means a few things. One, when you walk into a local grocery store, you’re liable to see a sign listing graduation dates (“CCRI May 16,” “Providence College May 18,” “Johnson & Wales May 24,” etc.) and corresponding color schemes (“URI. . . Blue & White,” “Brown University. . . Brown & White”) to steer your flower purchases. Two, when you flip on talk radio, you’re liable to hear angry neighbors calling to complain about epic parties like the “riot” — complete with airborne mailboxes and 18 arrests — that took place off-campus at URI earlier this month. And, three, you’re liable to hear pundits, politicians, business owners, and perhaps a few family members blaming a portion of Rhode Island’s economic woes on the “brain drain.”

We’ll leave you to handle Topics #1 and 2 on your own. But Number 3 is worth examining a bit more closely. It’s common knowledge that, for more than six months, Rhode Island has had the highest unemployment rate in the United States. What you may not know, however, is that according to the National Center for Education Statistics, we also have the highest annual per-capita-bachelor’s-degrees-awarded rate in the nation, at 0.86 degrees per 100 people. This is not a winning combination.

But how big of a problem is our so-called “brain drain”? How much of our economic malaise can we rightly pin on this donkey? And, to flip the issue upside-down, would we even want a scenario in which 100 percent of graduating seniors — more than 10,000 students annually — stayed within our borders?

These are some of the questions we set out to answer. Think of what follows as a guide to crafting an informed response when Uncle Mark starts rattling on about the “brain drain” at your cousin’s graduation party in Cranston.

Oh, and look out for flying mailboxes.

WHAT IS A “BRAIN DRAIN?”

The term “brain drain” is ubiquitous enough these days to have its own Merriam-Webster definition: “a situation in which many educated or professional people leave a particular place or profession and move to another one that gives them better pay or living conditions.”

Here in Rhode Island, you may have seen the phrase in a Providence Journal Letter to the Editor (“that Rhode Island is losing the best and brightest of its youth is a real shame, and indicative of the lack of vision and leadership found here”), a sound bite from a state senator (“[Senate Bill 2014-S 2079] will slow down the brain drain and help us retain our local college graduates.”), or a dire op-ed on golocalprov.com (“The issue could make many of our current political headaches, including pensions and structural deficits, much worse in the long run”). In 2007, we covered the issue ourselves in a story by then-news editor (and current Rhode Island Public Radio political reporter) Ian Donnis, who described “how the state, which has struggled to recapture the economic glory of the Industrial Revolution, lacks enough good jobs, leading smart young people to often pick up stakes and move elsewhere.”

Seven years, one national financial crisis, one prolonged recession, and an epic 38 Studios $75-million-in-taxpayer-cash-down-the-shitter meltdown since Donnis’s article, we’re still hearing the words “brain drain” echo across the airwaves and Little Rhody’s halls of power.

What’s going on?

DO WE KNOW ANY ACTUAL FACTS?

Everyone in Rhode Island basically knows everybody else, so it’s not surprising that many of us can think of folks who have grabbed a suitcase and traveled elsewhere to find work, buy a home, raise a family, and do all of the things that folks do when it’s time to “grow up” after college. (Personal note: I am one of three brothers raised in Rhode Island. I returned home after stints in Michigan, New York City, and California. My older brothers, however, “drained” to New York City, to manage a restaurant, and Washington, DC, to work for the federal government, respectively.)

But anecdotes shouldn’t be the basis for major policy decisions and investments of public funds. Nor should they be the final word in any intelligent conversation on the subject. So, do we actually know any solid facts about Rhody’s “brain drain”?

A 2011 study co-commissioned by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island (AICU RI) on this very subject is a good place to start. There’s plenty of good info to absorb here, like the fact that 42 percent of respondents cited “Job prospects are better elsewhere” as their reason for leaving (“Live closer to home,” was second at 19 percent, followed by “Continue my education,” at 15) and that only 46 percent of respondents said they even considered living here after graduation. Most significantly, though, the report found that, of the approximately 2500 ’06 and ’07 graduates from RI colleges and universities polled, 34 percent remained in Rhode Island three years after graduation, while 66 percent had headed elsewhere. Thus, our “brain drain” batting average, as of 2011, was 0.340.

If you ask AICU RI president Dan Egan, this is nothing to be ashamed of. For Egan — as staunch an anti-“brain drain” believer as you’ll meet in this state — what the Ocean State needs is a tweak in its outlook. “The ‘brain drain’ is a myth,” he says. Anyone who believes that we ought to retain the more than 85,000 students studying in Rhode Island in any given year — nearly 15,000 of whom will graduate every spring — is “crazy,” he says.

“You go to college for the experience,” he adds. “If [we] can keep some of those folks, post-grad, that’s a win.”

Charles Kelley, executive director of the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority, has a similar, if slightly toned-down, outlook. He’s quick to remind us that Rhode Island is a net importer of students. “That’s one of the most important facts: we bring in a large number of students from out of state,” he says. We might not manufacture jewelry as much as we once did, but education — which pumps millions of dollars into our economy annually via jobs, housing, food service, entertainment, and more — is an industry, itself. “[It’s] a terrible phrase,” Kelley says, “but we ‘manufacture’ bright young people by bringing them in and educating them and then exporting them.”

Such arguments pushing back against the “brain drain” were actually much easier to find than arguments subscribing to it during our reporting. It’s not that the folks we spoke with deny that college students are leaving the state in large numbers after graduation — it’s that they just don’t think this is such a bad thing.

Take Allan Tear, co-founder and managing partner of the Providence start-up accelerator Betaspring. “Fundamentally, when I hear the words ‘brain drain,’ ” he says, “I think, ‘It’s a concept developed by older people who forgot what it was like to be young.’ Because the only thing I wanted to do when I graduated from college was get the hell out of where I went to college.”

The movement of bright young people in and out of the state — what Tear calls “flow” — is healthy both for the state and those students, he says. What matters more is our prime location and thriving colleges and universities that continue to draw people. “We sit in this incredible corridor between Boston and DC that’s built on flow; literally we have a high-speed train that runs through this place,” he says. “We have an in-flow of new brains and they constantly refresh themselves every freshman class.”

Sam Seidel, director of the Student Experience Lab at Providence’s Business Innovation Factory (who himself is an out-of-stater who attended Brown, then stuck around), has at least three compelling reasons why we shouldn’t lose sleep over the “brain drain.”

First is related to the phrase itself: when we use those words “brain drain” what are we actually saying? “There’s this sort of implicit, or sometimes explicit, assumption that the brains that are most valuable only come through a certain set of institutions,” he says. “And also that they’ve mostly come from outside, as opposed to all of the wisdom and brilliance of people who were born and raised in a particular place, regardless of their educational achievement.” When it comes to addressing the challenges of a particular place, he says, who understands them better than the people who have come up in that place?

Second is the fact that part of the mission of higher-ed institutions — whether it’s Brown or RISD or Providence College or Salve Regina or URI or anywhere else — is for students to take their new knowledge and skills out into the world. The fruits of the educations provided by our local institutions “shouldn’t all be hogged here,” he says.

Finally, Seidel brings up the 100-percent-retention scenario. What would happen if, say, all Brown grads stuck around, every year? Rents would soar. Local residents would be priced out of their neighborhoods. “You’re just going to completely change the complexion and tenor of the city in a way that I think is not ideal,” he says.

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