Bad Ideas about Brain Drain

Commonwealth Magazine is a fantastic news source for city news in Massachusetts. But when they wrote recently about the Northeast Regional Student Program, they couldn’t even get through the title of the article without relying on tired “brain drain” metaphors:

Tracking student migration

Massachusetts is a winner under the Regional Student Program, while New Hampshire is a loser

Graph taken from Commonwealth Magazine article “Tracking student migration,” Nov 15, 2014.

With the talk of winners and losers, you can be forgiven for thinking that the Regional Student Program is a fancy new name for a regional March Madness run-up tournament. What the program actually does is offer a lower rate to out-of-state students from Northeastern states to other regional state’s colleges. You can qualify if your program of study is not available in your state or, in a separate program, if you live a certain distance from the other state’s college.

Labeling a state whose students take advantage of this program as a “loser” is indicative of bizarre and parochial thinking about students. It’s especially bizarre in New England, where the small size and arbitrary borders of many states mean that people will necessarily be crossing state lines to live, work, and study.

In fact, from the perspective of New Hampshire, the shift in students may well be seen as a victory. Why does New Hampshire need to establish a program in Canadian Studies or Puppetry when in-state students can go to Vermont or Connecticut to study these important subjects?

The tallying of “wins and losses” continues in the proximity-based program:

Northern Essex Community College, with campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill, was the biggest winner overall, attracting 1,160 students from other states.

Northern Essex CC 1
NECC is closer to New Hampshire than downtown Haverhill, the city the college is located in.
Source: Google Maps.
Source: Google Maps with personal touch
NECC’s Lawrence campus. Again, dangerously close to enemy territory.
Source: Google Maps with my editorial comments.

This is ludicrous. NECC is literally walking distance from New Hampshire. Is New Hampshire really a “loser” when its students choose to attend the community college nearest to their home?

This is not to say the numbers are irrelevant, or that greater out of state attendance is always a good sign. There are places where “brain drain” is conceivably a problem. Northern Maine, for example, has been losing inhabitants for many years and has an older and poorer population as a result. This hinders further economic development, continuing the cycle of economic decline.

So let’s assume that “losing” students to neighboring states represents a problem to New Hampshire. The response is pretty clear. New Hampshire is leading the pack in increasing college costs at state universities; It currently costs less to be a regional student under this program to UMass’ flagship Amherst campus than to go to University of New Hampshire as an in-state student. Much has been made of the economic naivety of students, but they know a good deal when they see it. If New Hampshire really thinks this is a problem, it could lower its rates for in-state students.

The Brain Drain Refrain

I don’t want to jump on this article alone. The larger problem is that this type of thinking is a major (and misplaced) concern in New England. There’s an ingrained fear that young educated people are a finite resource leaving [insert geographical area] in droves. If it’s not New Hampshire’s young people leaving for – gasp – Massachusetts, it’s Bostonians leaving for Silicon Valley.

There are a couple problems with this thinking. First, economic development naturally happens across state lines. Massachusetts’ loss is usually not New Hampshire’s gain; conversely, however, the benefits of better education are often shared between states. A lot of southern New Hampshire is part of the Boston metro area – an implicit recognition that the ties between the cities and towns have a gravitational pull across state lines.

The alternative is ludicrous: in order for students to pursue their best economic interests within state lines, each state would have to develop their own Harvard, MIT, and mature biotechnology industry within a major urban area like Boston. And a mature finance and insurance industry like Connecticut. Or any number of other economic assets that are not spread evenly among the states. In this instance, the UMass system is highly respected and one would expect it to draw students over nearby borders.

Second, I feel compelled to remind people who worry about these issues that students return. Whether because of family, nostalgia, or sense of duty to your hometown, people return to where they come from. If it’s so risky to let someone from Plaistow, NH enter the wilds of Massachusetts, I feel like it’s going to be hard to “retain” them anyway. The churn between states could instead be viewed as a healthy way to build economic connections.

This Boston Redevelopment Authority report represents some better thinking on the issue. Every few years someone rings the alarm bell to say that Boston/Massachusetts/New England is failing to retain enough of its young minds. While having a critical mass of well-trained people is vital to regional economic success, the report deftly points out that the “number who stay” is a misguided metric.

The retention of college graduates is lower in New England than other parts of the country. This is mostly due to the fact that the region imports students every year, with far more students coming into the region than leaving it. This retention rate also reflects the highly prestigious and selective schools in the Boston area which, as shown by research, produce more mobile graduates.

In other words, Boston can afford to lose brains because it attracts so many good ones. Some of these young people are coming from New Hampshire, and some of them will return to their home state. Others will stay in Boston or elsewhere but start a business or make an important discovery that spurs economic growth at home.

Excessive focus on brain drain is a bit pathetic. The greatest tragedy, to this mindset, is a young person crossing a state border. It’s like those parents who drive away their children with their overweening desire to possess them. If you love something, let it go: in a lot of cases, it’ll come back better than ever.


Gateway City #3: Haverhill

Haverhill, now a typical New England manufacturing city, in its three hundred years' history has developed from a hardscrabble frontier village to its present high position in the industrial world.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

haverhillcitysealThis post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Third up is Haverhill.

Before we get started on today’s post, let’s play a game I like to call “pronouncing New England towns.” I want you to say the name “Haverhill” aloud with what you think is the most likely pronunciation.

Now, come up with a backup pronunciation, just in case you’re wrong.

Got them? OK… It’s “HAY-vrull”. Thanks for playing! Better luck next time.

Haverhill’s Economic Context

Like its pronunciation, the problems in Haverhill may appear more straightforward than they really are. Although it’s not as diverse or populous as other Gateways it contains a number of unique economic challenges.

One of the original three Gateway cities in the Northeast, Haverhill has been overshadowed in terms of media coverage and popular familiarity by Lowell and Lawrence. This is good and bad: Haverhill certainly has less of a negative image than Lawrence, but from the state perspective it doesn’t come to mind easily. To give you an idea: when someone says that they live in Haverhill, they don’t get the immediate raised eyebrow that “I live in Fall River” or “I live in Lawrence” does. At the same time, most Massachusetts residents are probably only aware of it as a highway exit on the way to the Maine or New Hampshire coast.

Mural on Essex Street

The problems in Haverhill are also a bit more idiosyncratic – or depending on your perspective, quotidian – than the most disadvantaged Gateway Cities. It borders New Hampshire, which has lower taxes and against which it must fight to keep businesses and shopping centers. It’s spread over a large area, which makes service provision more expensive but also brings in different types of industries and business.

Despite these factors, Haverhill is undoubtedly one of the better positioned Gateway Cities. Recent MassINC analysis showed that Haverhill is one of the only Gateway Cities to add a substantial number of jobs in the past ten years, and the one least dependent on the health care sector. Haverhill’s job growth profile matches Boston much more than Springfield or Worcester, which have replaced declining jobs in other sectors with job increases in health services, especially jobs treating people living in poverty.

West downtown shops

The feel of the city is quite comfortable. The nicest parts are something to be very proud of. Unfortunately – and this is something that I’m sure almost all residents would acknowledge – the edges to the best places in the city are sharp and clear. You can drive down the main drag past beautiful brick facades and upon crossing a dividing street, enter into an unmistakably downtrodden and drab area.

Although as a Gateway City Haverhill necessarily has a higher poverty level than the average Massachusetts town, I don’t get the feeling that overwhelming poverty is the issue. It’s that the assets are not evenly spread around the city. This is totally natural – every city has a concentration of attractive elements in one part of town – but holds special problems for small and mid-sized cities.

In a way, my experience in Haverhill provides a more complete picture of what I observed in New Bedford – that revitalization of a favored sector is a necessary first step but has to catalyze greater change throughout the city.

Haverhill’s Big Plans

The city has a number of big developments that they hope will create the conditions for change, although most are fairly embryonic. The strategy centers largely around the river and waterfront.

Downtown Haverhill
Green Line – well developed west downtown. Red Line – east downtown area targeted by the city for revitalization. The Yellow Rectangle is the site of Harbor Place.
Source: Google Maps

Foremost among these is Harbor Place, a new development replacing a long abandoned Woolworth’s building that has become an eyesore in the eastern part of downtown. The new building will provide commercial space and a satellite campus of UMass Lowell. The design strives to incorporate outdoor space and placemaking, both of which are sorely needed on the street.

The western half of downtown, from the convenient commuter rail stop to roughly Essex street, is well developed and charming. The eastern half, from Essex to the bridge adjacent to Harbor Place, has a lot of work left. Haverhill plans to use Harbor Place as leverage to change how the neglected half of downtown looks and feels.

The former abandoned Woolworth’s building where the Harbor Place building will be…

Not a bad strategy overall, although it follows a “downtown first and the rest will follow” approach similar to New Bedford. The city has attracted a lot of public investment in this area specifically, and I understand why small cities without much economic development capacity have to focus on their core in this era of downtown revitalization. One hopes, though, that city leadership is focused on improving the other areas of town alongside it.

…and what is planned to take its place.

Haverhill has started taking an interesting approach to making the city more livable. Beyond the beginning of a bike loop and boardwalk, they’re trying to make it a boating destination from Newburyport and the Atlantic. I know as little about boating as I do about Massachusetts town pronunciation, so I don’t know how viable this is, but it seems like an interesting, outside the box line of thinking.

The centrality of the river to the city’s development plans is an interesting case study for all Gateway Cities. As Haverhill tries to move forward on new projects, it’s caught in a battle against its historical self, a question that comes up consistently across the state: what do we take from our past, and what do we leave behind?

The Merrimack River and the Gateways’ Connection to the Past

For a city, connection to the past can be a double-edged sword. Although it gives a city some comfortable precedent to cling to, it can also stop the place moving forward. At some level, all the Gateway Cities face a similar challenge: although they have a troublesome past of disinvestment and “legacy industries,” most of their greatest assets are also a result of their history.

Haverhill street scene, last Thursday. 
Source: Wikimedia Commons
haverhill flood
Haverhill residents frequently travel by boat to in-town destinations.
Source: “Flood in Haverhill” by Leslie Jones, via Boston Public Library Flickr.
haverhill flood 2
A woman waits at a bus stop on top of one of Haverhill’s famous underwater mailboxes.
Source: “Haverhill Flood” by Leslie Jones via Boston Public Library Flickr.

Towns that grew in the 18th/19th century all have some similar problems. In cities like Haverhill, the river was first used by industry in a way that makes no sense for the town as it exists today. Whether for mills or factories, the water was at best the equivalent to a modern highway, moving goods in and out. At worst, it was a dump that conveniently kept pollution flowing. Physical construction of the city is based on a time when the incentives were exactly backwards. People unfortunately had to be near the river, so they built with their backs to it.

While the river used to be something to avoid and pollute, now it is quite picturesque. If the city was founded today, the riverside area would represent the highest value property in the city. In this case, blindly following historical precedent – turning away from the river – would be disastrous.

Here’s where the history of the city has thrown us an interesting curveball: as far as an existing city goes, an underutilized waterfront is as blank slate as it gets. It would be impossible to have pockets deep enough to buy land for development projects if many established businesses were already in the area; Haverhill is only able to build their redevelopment plan around Harbor Place because the area was neglected for so long.

Whether in industry or land use, cities turn to what brought them success in the past but often the past has put us on the totally wrong track. Occasionally it brings an unexpected consequence that has huge relevance today.  Gateway Cities have to hold these two trends in tension.

This is not to suggest that cities ought to neglect their assets in the hope of future opportunities. When small cities do act, they tend to rush to copy what’s hot right now, without giving thought to whether their local character, environment, or citizens will support it. If ten years ago Haverhill had torn down all the blighted buildings and built new river-facing condos, it might have met immediate needs, but an area only has the sense of place it needs if it spends some energy preserving its character.

Community Planning for the Past, Present and Future

Preserving historical character while embracing forward thinking is not very controversial advice. But in practice it’s difficult to get real commitment to these principles. It requires the development of an economic and land use strategy and the involvement of citizens in the planning process. Some of Haverhill’s nearby neighbors (a Portsmouth, New Hampshire or a Newburyport, MA) have cultivated a quaint colonial look that promotes a lot of tourism and comfortable quality of life, but Haverhill would have difficulty dropping those strategies in from the top down. The city’s just not built for it and would have to compete against these towns that have higher quality assets.

It takes a lot of soul-searching for a city to come to its economic strategy, but there’s just no alternative. The places like Haverhill that do a good job preserving the historical while moving forward are the places where the future will be brightest.

In Harbor Place, Haverhill has the start of a good plan. Now it’s about implementing it. I look forward to seeing the results.