Hey, Kid: Here’s a Diploma. Why Don’t You Take Off Your Coat and Stay Awhile

Who should Washington’s public universities be trying to educate? If you ask most people, they’ll probably say that it’s our state’s residents. And that’s mostly the case. Overall, 89% of students in the six public universities in this state are residents (or at least find a way to qualify as residents for in-state tuition). And that makes a lot of sense, in terms of using our tax dollars to educate our kids.

But in terms of return on investment, that’s not actually the biggest bang for the buck. The best way to ensure that our state is getting a return on that investment is not to educate people that grow up here, but rather people who are going to stay here after the get their degree. Those are the people who are going to get jobs, pay taxes and be generally productive in our economy. Ideally, a lot of them are both kids who grow up here AND who stay here after college. But making sure that there’s a relationship between who goes to school here and who stays here isn’t as easy as you might think.

The national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, is that around 62% of people live in the same state as they got their bachelor degree. Furthermore, we also know that local kids that go elsewhere often don’t come back (about 70% of students who go to college in another state do not come back to their home state). Those numbers are somewhat higher and lower respectively for a state like Washington, given that our major university (UW) is actually in a city that has lots of jobs, whereas some major universities are in places that have a low chance of student retention (no offense, Notre Dame and Penn State).  But there’s more to be done, like they do in Philadelphia.

I really like the mission statement of Campus Philly, “…a nonprofit organization that fuels economic growth by encouraging college students to study, explore, live and work in the Greater Philadelphia tri-state region.” I appreciate two things about this: 1) the recognition that keeping the smart people we educate is a good thing to do (the reason why former UW President Mark Emmert talked about stapling green cards to UW diplomas), and 2) the assumption that people need to be convinced to want to stay in Philly. As someone who comes from Philly, I can say that, for a long time, Philly was not the nicest place to be; it has taken decades of dedicated investment to create the kind of urban renewal that cities like New York and Seattle have experienced…and there’s still work to be done.

This latter point in particular conflicts with a core belief in our region: that we don’t need to sell ourselves. A common economic development person’s complaint about Seattle is our sense of satisfaction, that feeling of “we’re great and it must be clear to everyone else that we’re great.” And we are great, don’t get me wrong. But there are plenty of great places, and you can’t just expect the best and the brightest to flock to you based on passive awesomeness. Much like we need to be more active in attracting talent, like a regional strategy to address the two-body problem, we need a regional talent retention strategy too. And starting with keeping the kids we educate is a great first step.

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