The U.S. Cities Winning the Battle Against Brain Drain

The U.S. Cities Winning the Battle Against Brain Drain

College-educated workers add considerably to local economies, but some places do much better at retaining them.

Image f11photo /
f11photo /

Over the past decade or so, cities and metros across the United States have greatly increased their efforts to retain college graduates. And for good reason. College grads are a key driver of innovation and economic development, and are closely connected to the wealth and affluence of cities and metros according to a large number of studies. But Americans are much more likely to move in their mid-to-late twenties, so it’s the metros that hang on to more of their college grads that stand to gain a long-run advantage.

There has been no shortage of speculation about which metros lead and lag in retaining college grads. But new data and research provided to us by Jonathan Rothwell at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program enables us to zoom in much more precisely on which metros are the winners and losers in retaining their college talent. (I recently wrote about Rothwell’s related research on the economic effects of college and universities.)

To get at this, Rothwell and his colleague Siddharth Kulkarni collected data on where college and university grads reside from LinkedIn’s alumni profiles, which list the most common urban locations of alumni. This data covers over 1,700 of the largest U.S. colleges and universities (721 two-year institutions and 984 four-year ones), which graduate approximately two-thirds of all students. With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) team, I then mapped this data by metro. Metros in purple have the most alumni still living in the area, while metros in light blue have the least.

The map above gets us started by showing the share of graduates from all colleges and universities—both two- and four-year institutions—who remain in the metro where they went to school. Note the dark purple along the Boston-New York-Washington Corridor, in Northern and Southern California, in the Pacific Northwest, and in parts of the South and Midwest.

The table below shows the ten best and worst large metros for retaining college grads from all two- and four-year colleges and universities in Rothwell’s database.

Best and Worst Large U.S. Metros at Retaining College Grads (two- and four-year institutions)

Best Large Metros Retention Rate
Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 77.7%
Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 75.9%
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 74.2%
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 73.6%
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 73.2%
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 71.8%
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 70.9%
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 70.9%
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 70.0%
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 69.5%
Worst Large Metros Retention Rate
Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 36.3%
Providence-Fall River-Warwick, RI-MA 36.5%
Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT 40.4%
Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 43.2%
Rochester, NY 43.7%
Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC 44.1%
Salt Lake City, UT 44.6%
Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY 45.7%
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 46.4%
Pittsburgh, PA 50.0%

The retention rates range from more than three-quarters of grads to less than forty percent. Perhaps surprisingly, the hard-hit Detroit metro area tops the list with a 77.7 percent retention rate. This high retention level is likely due to the fact that the University of Michigan is located nearby, while smaller colleges and universities like Wayne State and the University of Detroit Mercy, as well as community colleges, serve a more locally based group of students.

Houston is second with a 75.9 percent retention rate, New York is third with 74.2 percent, and Seattle and Atlanta round out the top five. Dallas, Portland, Riverside, Chicago, and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul complete the top ten.

At the other end of the scale, the metro with the lowest retention rate is Phoenix with 36.3 percent, followed closely by Providence. Hartford is third, and Austin—a leading tech hub—is fourth. Rochester, Virginia Beach, Salt Lake City, Buffalo, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh round out the ten metros with the lowest grad retention rates.

One might expect graduates from two-year colleges—mainly community colleges—to be more likely to remain in the metro where they went to school. The bigger question, then, is what happens to grads from four-year colleges and universities. The map below shows this pattern for metros across the nation.

Again note the dark purple across the Boston-New York-Washington Corridor, Northern and especially Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, Southern Florida, parts of Texas, as well as pieces of the South, Midwest, and Rocky Mountain West.

The table below shows the top and bottom ten large metros for retaining grads from four-year colleges.

Best and Worst Large U.S. Metros at Retaining College Grads (four-year institutions)

Best Large Metros Retention Rate
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 71.1%
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 70.6%
Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 70.2%
Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 66.1%
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 65.2%
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 64.6%
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 64.2%
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 63.7%
Louisville-Jefferson County, KY-IN 63.0%
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 62.9%
Worst Large Metros Retention Rate
Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 18.0%
Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT 26.4%
Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC 31.6%
Providence-Fall River-Warwick, RI-MA 31.9%
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 33.3%
Rochester, NY 34.0%
Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY 35.8%
Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Roseville, CA 37.3%
Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 38.4%
Oklahoma City, OK 39.3%

The pattern is somewhat similar to the one before it. This time, New York tops the list, followed by Riverside, Detroit, Houston, and San Jose, with Seattle, Atlanta, Dallas, Louisville, and L.A. rounding out the top ten. Large metros like these benefit from an array of employment opportunities, as well as large concentrations of young grads and other amenities. Indeed, Rothwell finds a moderately high correlation of 0.48 between retention rates and the size of the metro, measured by working age population.

On the flip side, the bottom ten metros include Phoenix (with a paltry 18 percent retention rate), Hartford, Virginia Beach, Providence, and New Orleans, with Rochester, Buffalo, Sacramento, Austin, and Oklahoma City completing the top ten. Baltimore (44 percent), Washington, D.C. (44 percent), and Pittsburgh (43 percent) also have modest retention rates. My own research was spurred by the outmigration of my former Carnegie Mellon students from Pittsburgh. But D.C.’s relatively low retention rate is something of a surprise given the economic dynamism of the region. Perhaps it is due to the region’s specialization in government-related work, which prompts graduates in other fields to move to other areas of the country.

But what about the most prestigious universities and colleges like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale, and Columbia? How many of their students remain in the metros where they attended college?

Some of the lowest retention rates are for prestigious universities in small college towns. Just 7 percent of Cornell graduates stay in Ithaca. And just 16 percent of Duke graduates remain in the Durham-Chapel Hill area compared to 30 percent of all graduates from four-year institutions and 78 percent of two-year college graduates in the area.

Graduates from prestigious schools in New York are much more likely to stay in the region. More than half (53 percent) of Columbia University grads remain in the New York City metro. For NYU, the figure is 62 percent. The percentage is also higher for more locally oriented colleges and universities such as the Stevens Institute of Technology, which retains 64 percent of its grads, Manhattan College, which retains 71 percent, and the CUNY schools, with an average retention rate of 77 percent.

Outside of New York, however, it is far less likely for students from prestigious universities to stick around. Less than a quarter of Harvard graduates and only 27 percent of MIT grads end up in greater Boston, compared to roughly half of all graduates from four-year Boston area colleges. Just 36 percent of grads from both Georgetown University and the University of Chicago stay in their respective metros. And just 43 percent of Stanford grads stay in the San Jose metro. Meanwhile, graduates of more locally oriented universities in these metros are much more likely to stay in the region, including Lewis University in Chicago at 79 percent, and San Jose State at 72 percent. The reason is simple: Students at leading universities hail from all over the nation and the world, and are far more willing and able to look for employment, further education, or even go home to their families in more far-flung locations when they graduate.

This data paints a more complicated pattern of college retention than we are used to. For one, it is not just knowledge hubs and superstar cities like New York and L.A. that retain lots of grads. Places like Detroit, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta do, too. Moreover, it is not just older, more hard-hit Rustbelt metros that are losing their college grads. So are places like Austin, Providence, and fast-growing Phoenix.

Specifically, it is mostly small college towns with limited employment offerings that see the largest shares of their students move away. And of course, the most advantaged grads from the most prestigious universities have the highest rates of mobility. But perhaps the biggest takeaway is how many college grads in places like Detroit stay close to home. For all the talk of how mobile the young and the educated seem to be, in quite a few metros the bulk of college grads tend to stay where they went to school. This is good news for the economic future of these places.

*UPDATE (3/18): In response to this post, Rothwell and I received a number of good suggestions about how to deepen and refine our analysis in the future. Several pointed out that Phoenix is home to the University of Phoenix, with its large online student body, many of whom don’t live in the Phoenix metro. When Rothwell redid the numbers taking this into account, Phoenix’s retention rates improved to 56 percent for two- and four-year institutions and 41 percent for four-year institutions.

Others pointed out that Detroit’s retention rate benefits from two major state universities—the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Michigan State in East Lansing—which receive considerable attendance from the greater Detroit area. When Rothwell combined these three metros, the retention rates dropped to 57 percent for two- and four-year institutions and 41 percent for four-year institutions.

This data can be sliced and diced for individual metros in many different ways. Still, the overall thrust of this post remains: lots of students stay in the metro where they go to college.

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