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.


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