What we lose when Kansas college graduates drift to surrounding states

September 17, 2022 3:33 am
Graduates put messages on their mortarboard hats during graduation ceremonies. Eric Thomas wonders how we will mark our graduation from two years of COVID-19 concerns. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Kansas invests in higher education, but does that translate to college graduates investing in Kansas? Eric Thomas asked a handful if they planned to stay or go. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

When a government invests in a bridge, that bridge serves its use in the same place, obviously, for its entire life. Ditto for most other public investments, from the small (a stop sign) to the large (a medical center). The benefits spent by a state, city or town redound to the residents of that area. 

But what about education? 

It’s clear that funding vibrant schools helps the surrounding community, the real estate market and, most directly and vitally, the students themselves. 

However, we cross our fingers that Kansas students, once they graduate college, stay here in Kansas. We hope that their enriched brains will help our cities flourish. We hope that they start a new nonprofit medical center or a business, perhaps one that makes stop signs. 

This downstream benefit of education — that a state government can supercharge its young people — relies on students to pack their apartments in Lawrence, Manhattan and Hays and move to Salina, Leawood and Dodge City. 

The alternative is the dreaded brain drain: the possibility that students can move to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, rather than Pittsburg, Kansas. And a recent national study on brain drain news was bleak for Kansas. 

The National Bureau of Economic Research released “Grads on the Go: Measuring College-Specific Labor Markets for Graduates” in May, and the Washington Post published two visualizations of the data this week.

If you haven’t clicked on the links to the study yet, take a guess at where Kansas ranks among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. How would you predict it compares with its neighbors: Missouri, Colorado and Nebraska? Where do Kansas students move, if they leave the state? 

While you consider that, let’s admire how the study mined its data. Using the professional networking website LinkedIn, the study aggregated “information on the geographical locations of former students for nearly all public and private non-profit colleges and universities in the United States.” The data echoes earlier government studies that track graduates and the locations of their jobs. 

The advantage of considering this study rather than earlier ones? Researchers claim that their “data cover a more extensive range of institutions and are available for finer levels of geography.”

The researchers also caught my attention with this observation: the “increased mobility of college graduates over time has contributed to the decline in state appropriations over the past 40 years. … Taxpayers’ support for public funding on higher education depends on return on investment.”

As one of the many university employees in Kansas who has often been restless for a raise, it was curious to see how our state Legislature’s reluctance to fund even modest salary bumps could be linked to worker mobility.

– Eric Thomas

As one of the many university employees in Kansas who has often been restless for a raise, it was curious to see how our state Legislature’s reluctance to fund even modest salary bumps could be linked to worker mobility. 

Now that I have given you a moment to predict how Kansas performed, let’s dive in. 

Kansas was fifth worst in retaining college graduates, with the state losing 47.2 percent more college graduates than it gains. The only states that did worse were geographically concentrated in the Northeast: Rhode Island, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Vermont. 

Those states might easily shrug off those findings because three of those states are geographically small, so it’s less likely that graduates can find jobs there. After all, there are only so many jobs in Rhode Island, especially if you aspire to a rare job — like, let’s say, redesigning stop signs. 

It’s troubling that Kansas, a large state in the Midwest, finds itself in such ignominious company.  

In a second visualization, the Post showed where students ended up. Kansas sinks to the bottom of the list here as well, with substantial flight to Missouri, Texas, Colorado and California. Kansas grads migrate east to Missouri, in predictable yet troubling numbers. 

“About 50 percent of recent college graduates are living and working in the metro area nearest the institution they attended,” the study says. 

We all know that the Kansas City metropolitan area lures Jayhawks, Wildcats and Shockers. In addition to a migration like this draining the state of intellect, it also robs the state of tax revenue from workers who are likely to earn hundreds of thousands more than non-graduates over the course of their careers.

The states that benefit from the brain drain? States including Colorado, New York, Washington and California all attract 20 percent more college graduates than the number of graduates they lose.   

In the days after I encountered the new research, I wondered what soon-to-be college grads are thinking about selecting their post-campus home. 

Luckily, I found myself this week at the perfect place to ask them. I shared dinner with seven University of Kansas students — all of them from the state of Kansas. These students, by virtue of earning scholarships to the school’s journalism school, are some of our state’s brightest young college students. 

It didn’t take much to get them talking. 

Students who planned to stay in Kansas valued the chance to start a family where they themselves had grown up, whether Wichita or Emporia. They agreed with their fellow students — the ones who plan to leave — that Kansas is a place to settle, not a place for adventure.

Of the students who planned to leave, some said they planned to return to Kansas after time in other states. However, reflecting on my post-college swerves across the country and tracing the paths of my friends, it’s clear: if you leave the state, you are much less likely to return. 

The most logical answer to “why leave Kansas?” was the limited number of true metropolitan areas to choose from. It’s really just Wichita and Kansas City, one student said (slipping past the fact that much of Kansas City is in Missouri). 

Most common in their responses was a wanderlust that Kansas can’t satisfy. “There was a New York sense of freedom and no judgment,” one student said of his recent wanderings through the street life of Manhattan (the one in New York). “The weirdest thing here is nothing there.” 

The students said they feel a bit stifled by Kansas because they feel it is homogenous. Their sense of claustrophobia was a combination of living here and a recognition that Kansas is not as diverse as many other states. 

Their sentiments, shared over iced tea and cheesecake, point to the complexity of slowing, let alone reversing, the brain drain from Kansas. A singular solution — a new economic incentive or a new corporation relocating its headquarters — doesn’t address what most new Kansas graduates want as they start their lives: a different kind of Kansas. 

The daunting complexity of shifting the culture of Kansas doesn’t suggest that we give up and help our new grads pack their U-Hauls for Denver and Houston. Instead, it suggests the urgency of incrementally creating a Kansas that is a destination, not an exit, for our brightest minds.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.


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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.