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Brain drain — more than a clever catch phrase

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


The phrase “brain drain” has popped up so often recently on editorial pages and in mission statements that merely seeing the phrase again might try the patience of even the most dedicated civic cheerleader.

Yet a study called Graduate Migration from Indiana’s Post Secondary Institutions by the Indianapolis-based Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute shows that the exodus of the state’s best and brightest to what are perceived as more desirable areas to establish a career and a life is a very real phenomenon in Indiana.

The Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute’s study was sort of a follow-up to a huge effort started in the mid-80s to raise the number of people going to college in Indiana. The results of that effort were successful: based on population, Indiana produces a significant number of college graduates, and is also a significant importer of out-of-state high school graduates pursuing a college-degree. “It was the first study that really tried to look at whether or not we were keeping those graduates we were producing,” says Steve Johnson, president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute. “Were we keeping them in Indiana? The answer was pretty much no.”

In fact, the study found that about 36% of state residents left Indiana after graduation, and a whopping 89% of non-residents left Indiana after graduation. Graduate Migration from Indiana’s Post Secondary Institutions also looked at “brain drain” by choice of majors. In the study’s survey, business degrees ranked first, and engineering and technology degrees ranked fourth in the choice of majors by respondents (according to the study, these are examples of “the subject area disciplines most likely to be needed in a manufacturing oriented economy”). In those fields, almost half of the business majors and more than 60% of the engineering/technology majors took the first road out of Indiana in pursuit of a career.

Though first published in March 1999, the study is still widely referenced by state and local policy makers, and still considered the final word on the “brain drain” issue in Indiana. “These are the kind of cultural economic issues that don’t change over night,” says Johnson. “The study showed that there was a significant number of students who were leaving and never coming back, because the perception was that the job opportunities that fit their skill set coming out of the universities simply were not there.”

So, give them jobs, and they’ll stay? Well, maybe. The Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute study also stated that “quality of life is a factor in the failure to keep highly-educated persons in Indiana.” What that means exactly is unclear, since the graduates who remained in Indiana ranked “quality of life” fairly high as one of the reasons they stayed. But the fact that many also cited it as a leading reason for leaving indicates that one of the biggest misconceptions about the “brain drain” might be that it’s all economics-based.

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