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Opinions abound on the issue of “Brain Drain” in Indiana and elsewhere. Brain Drain is the term given when college graduates move out of state taking their knowledge and skills with them. What drives it, what can be done about it, and how do we compare to other peer cities in educational attainment?

Let’s go to the numbers and see what we can learn.

Let’s start at the beginning – when students first attend college. Similar to other large universities, Indiana attracts many out-of-state college students. According to a Washington Post blog, in 2008 Indiana attracted 13,386 out-of-state students while 4,802 students left the state for college resulting in a net gain of 8,584. A “brain gain” indeed that ranks second of all states in the nation. Sounds like we get started on the right foot.

Things then flip after graduation when 50% of students leave Indiana to find work. There are many reasons why graduates might leave the state—more job opportunities elsewhere, the young adults may be pursuing a different culture found in only big and coastal cities—and we see many of them hail from out-of-state to begin with so maybe they just return home to pursue work.

And the higher the level of education obtained, the higher the probability that students will leave Indiana. Check out this interactive mapshowing Indiana brain drain by county. Another interactive map from the U.S. Census Bureau shows migration patterns by county for the whole nation. Just pick a county and see where people are going to and coming from. Would you have guessed that Marion County gains a net 512 people per year from Los Angeles County, California?

What is being done about Indiana brain drain? Lilly Endowment announced in December of 2013 a pledge of 63 million dollars to fight Indiana brain drain. The money will go to Indiana universities to expand career development programs, such as internships, but that alone will not keep graduates here if the right job opportunities do not exist.

And not everyone believes Indiana brain drain is a real problem. Check out this article from the Indiana Business Journal suggesting that Indiana has a relatively high rate of graduate retention.

In any case, how does Marion County stack up against Midwestern peer cities in educational attainment and top industries? Unfortunately we rank near the bottom in educational attainment. Columbus, Ohio and Nashville, Tennessee stand out with the highest rates of population with a bachelor degree or higher, with Indianapolis lagging behind.

And it’s easy to believe that education levels will have something to do with what industries predominate. This table shows top industries for our peer counties. They all have a top industry of Education/Health Care, but those with higher educational attainment seem to be more likely to result in more jobs in professional, scientific, and management sectors.

Clearly the picture is less than crystal clear on Indiana brain drain. Do some thinking on your own and let us know your thoughts and opinions.


Jay Colbert is Project Manager of SAVI and Community Informatics at The Polis Center.

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