Kate Nasoff said she didn’t think twice about moving back home to New York City after graduating from Tulane University nearly one year prior.
"I stuffed my college diploma into a cardboard box and thought 'thanks for the memories, New Orleans.'"
About an hour later she’d left her Uptown residence located just off of Tulane’s campus one last time, and headed to where she’d spent the first 18 years of her life.
Similarly, none of her close friends she’d graduated with were staying in Louisiana either. One moved to Atlanta, one to San Diego, and a handful had also gone to New York City, but not one of the girls she’d grown closest with at Tulane decided to continue on in Louisiana.
Whether moving back home with parents while waiting for job offers or having already received job offers in new cities, Nasoff explained that very few people she knew ever considered living or taking a job in Louisiana where they spent the last four years.
Nasoff’s post-graduation testament reinforces a major issue that Louisiana’s work field and economy continues to suffer from.
Ideally, the flow of college graduates moving into a state should, at least, balance out with the flow of college graduates moving out of that state, but that isn’t so in Louisiana’s case.
In 2013, the state experienced a 13 percent net loss of bachelor’s degree holders and a nine percent net loss of associate degree holders, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS).
While the NCHEMS study revealed a trend of graduates generally moving out of Louisiana, it also discovered that the state experiences a net in-migration of residents with the least education.
As a result, Louisiana businesses face a shortage of people with the highest education, yielding an overall weaker economy.
Retention Rate Gaps
Retention rates differ among various regions of Louisiana, according to a study by Martin Prosperity Institute that ranked the best and worst large U.S. metros at retaining college graduates.
The study found that in New Orleans, where private universities like Tulane and Loyola are located, the retention rate for graduates from two and four year universities was 46 percent, ranking the city the ninth-worst in the country.
In Baton Rouge, where public universities LSU and Southern are located, the retention rate was 53 percent.
The seven percent difference introduced the idea that another factor might contribute toward degree holder’s post-graduation plans.
Indeed, New Orleans universities hold the highest number of out-of-state student population. Tulane University, for example, has a student body consisting 77 percent of out-of-state students, according to CollegeBoard, a program for high school students preparing for college that provides student body demographics.
By contrast, LSU, located in Baton Rouge, has 83 percent of the student body from Louisiana.
LSU Admissions counselor Daniel Barrow summarized the differences between in-state and out-of-state attendance for these two schools. He noted that students who grew up in Louisiana and also went to a university in the state had a higher tendency to stay in-state upon graduating. Students from out of state who attend school in Louisiana were much more likely to move away after graduating.
Louisiana, like many other southern states, has a large population of people who place value on family and close-knit communities, creating generations of people who want to stay.
“Louisiana is a collectivist culture and always has been,” Burrow said.
Burrow said the collectivist nature of the state is so strong that it leaves a negative imprint on outsiders from other states, who may see opportunity, but don’t see a place for them in the already tight-knit social circles and families.
What exactly is Louisiana lacking?
The commonly perceived negative attitude about Louisiana is also upheld by studies that consistently score Louisiana last in categories of quality of life, employment rate, economic performance and first in government corruption, poverty and crime rate.
These statistics deter fresh graduates from staying here, taking with them their talent, drive, energy and creativity elsewhere in the pursuit of bigger and better opportunity.
The higher the level of education a person has, the more job opportunities available to them and thus they have control over where they choose to live and work. Trends show that many recent graduates, like Nasoff and her colleagues, are migrating to places where they feel hold the most opportunities.
The NCHEMS study also found that long-term young residents of Louisiana (age 22 to 29) with a bachelor degree earn roughly three percent more than their counterparts who recently moved in from out-of-state. This pay gap between long-term residents and newer residents is less among individuals with associate’s degrees, and even less among individuals having only earned a high school diploma. In other words, someone originally from another state working in Louisiana is paid less on average than a long-term resident with the same education and job.
Most of the problems involving the “brain drain” crisis in Louisiana arise from cracks in the economy rather than the higher education system itself, according to Aims McGuinnis, senior consultant at NCHEMS.
McGuinnis participates in ongoing projects to reform higher education systems and advises higher education systems within eighteen states – one of them being Louisiana.
“When the system as a whole is failing, it takes more than just a few crusaders to see improvement,” said McGuiness, who felt that organizations with expertise in higher education could only make minimal progress if a weak economy meant less pay and a shortage of jobs.
Nasoff admits she’d received a few job offers during her senior year from local companies in New Orleans and from one larger company headquartered in the city, but said that the companies didn’t seem well-established and felt that the pay and the benefits didn’t give her enough incentive to stay.
Ultimately, Nasoff showed more interest in taking a job with better benefits and with a stronger company foundation as well as in a city where she knew people were thriving.
Implementing “Brain Drain” Policies
State policy makers have long stressed concerns about “brain drain,” or the migration of the most academically-talented individuals out of the state. It’s impossible to fairly and legally regulate who directly is migrating from state to state.
All workers deserve steady jobs with enough pay that allows them to afford to support themselves and their family. The reality in Louisiana is that workers don’t make enough to make ends meet. The Louisiana Budget Project has included programs and organizations to counteract this stigma.
Louisiana’s Board of Regents exists to oversee higher education in Louisiana, including boards that run the University of Louisiana System, and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
The agency has an annual operating budget of $3 million, which is used for the creation of statewide coordination of education policy and strategic planning.
The Board of Regents Support Fund (BoRSF) functions to promote economic development through collaborations between academic programs.
Louisiana was expected to add 400,000 jobs between 2010 and 2020, which fit into the program’s budget.
Talk of anticipated improvement has also circulated as Kim Hunter Reed, 52, was selected by the Board of Regents on April 18 to serve as the next Commissioner of Higher Education.
In a statement made by Reed during a brief ceremony held in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office, Reed said she would stress access to education as a fighting force against Louisiana’s longtime poverty rate. Reed’s stance seems to recognize the link between higher education and economic development.
Louisianans selling tourism instead
The government, through policy-making and programs, is one way to bring about necessary changes, but progress through this will eventually reach a stand-still without the support and effort of Louisianans, said Bob Mann, professor and chairman of the Manship School at LSU.
Mann attended University of Louisana at Monroe, but moved to Washington, D.C. early on in his career to work on Capitol Hill as press secretary for Louisiana Sen. Russell Long.
The opportunity presented itself while Mann was pursuing a story in D.C. for the Shreveport Journal, where he worked at the time. A friend of his from home worked on the Hill and set him up with an interview with Long, whose press secretary was retiring.
Despite leaving D.C. eight years later to marry and start a family in Shreveport, Mann described the experience as the best thing to happen to him professionally.
It allowed him to kickstart his career, which would change a few times before he joined the Manship team. Mann has never had a more challenging job since then. Without his experience in D.C., Mann is unsure of if his career path would have taken him this far.
Upon returning to Louisiana, he said he asked himself, “Have I changed?” The answer was no. Mann’s years spent in D.C., where he said was a far more diverse place than he had ever experienced in his birthplace, Beaumont, Texas, and at ULM, had broadened his perspective.
Mann said he’d finally understood all the ways that Louisiana was lacking in comparison to D.C.
While Louisianans pride themselves in the entertainment culture, he said – hosting Mardi Gras each year, the hospitality of the South, and having unique cuisine such as crawfish and jambalaya – long-term residents failed to recognize valuable qualities that make people actually want to stay here and that Louisiana was lacking in many of them.
“It may be good for tourism, but we overestimate the lure of our culture to the detriment of other important factors,” Mann said.
He described Louisiana as more of a vacation destination than a place to raise a family.
Nasoff had always felt like Louisiana was more of a temporary home while she was attending Tulane than an end destination.
She said she felt that young people with progressive thinking, considerably herself, are driven away by the notion that Louisiana is intolerant. The state has yet to catch up with social and political trends that spread outward from metropolitan areas in other states.
“It almost feels like Louisiana is in a bubble," Nasoff said. "It doesn’t feel like we’re quite caught up with the rest of the United States. When there’s something good here, there’s something better out there.”
Going the extra mile: luring people in for good
Daniel McGlynn, an entrepreneur and lawyer in Baton Rouge, has played an important part in trying to lure a new crowd of younger individuals. McGlynn invites local artists to decorate buildings downtown with murals.
It’s his attempt, he says, at “bringing life to a concrete jungle.”
McGlynn grew up less than a mile from LSU and attended the four-year university as well as the law program before establishing his firm downtown.
McGlynn purchased the building in 1987 when the downtown area consisted of significantly less buildings and businesses than it does now. Since the start of his firm, McGlynn has gained support from the Baton Rouge community to “flip” downtown.
Through networking with his clients, McGlynn has brought local businesses and real estate to the downtown area.
No single solution presents itself in the years-long issue of retaining and gaining employees with higher education.
However, studies related to the issue seem to all suggest that success of the work field and the economy go hand in hand – strengthen the work field and bring in more talented, educated employees and the economy will begin to flourish; likewise, the more the economy begins to flourish, the more attractive it becomes for people with college degrees to work under.
One of the main components driving away college graduates, aside from the social and political structure of Louisiana, is the economy. Yet, a major setback for the Louisiana’s economy exists because the work field is lacking in those with higher education.
No policy alone will fix the problem at hand. Mann stressed that addressing the link between Louisiana’s economy and a work field saturated with higher educated employers will require participation from the community as well.
Mann’s experience in D.C. threw him into a community of the most educated, high-brow people, but he ultimately decided that Louisiana was his home. What stuck out to him when he came back was the tendency for average citizens in Louisiana to be too relaxed about necessary changes.
“To people who are still here: use your voice” Mann advised.