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Is 'Brain Drain' a Legitimate Problem?

According to analysts like Aaron Renn, the exodus of educated Millennials from what some perceive to be less-glamorous cities shouldn't signal impending doom. For one thing, brain drain might not be happening at all.
September 1, 2015, 7am PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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City leaders often worry about retaining the educated Millennial demographic. "Practically every city has complained at some point about the existential threat of brain drain. Yet, look at current data, and you might start to think cities today are fighting a phantom."

Commentators like the Manhattan Institute's Aaron Renn see a pervasive and unfounded paranoia in the brain drain phenomenon. "An oft-used metaphor regarding Midwest cities is that hemorrhaging young talent is like a leaky tub, with grads flowing to glitzier economies in New York, Silicon Valley and Boston."

In a recent paper, Renn calls the factual basis of that metaphor into question. "Between 2000 and 2013, the amount of adults with a bachelor's degree or better grew substantially — by at least double digits — in all 28 metros" classified as the nation's largest "shrinking cities." Their populations might be shrinking, but many postindustrial cities are actually becoming better educated. 

The problem may lie with undue emphasis placed on collegiate retention rates. "When you're focused exclusively on retaining people with college degrees, you're focusing a lot on problems of the elite," says Renn. Retention rates also ignore arriving degree-holders who attended school elsewhere. 

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Published on Thursday, August 27, 2015 in Next City
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