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Why Many Don’t Settle Down Where They Went to College

I’ve written previously in this space and elsewhere for AIER about declining internal migration in the U.S. and what that might mean for our economy. I was therefore very interested when I got back from vacation and saw a recent story in The Boston Globe on declining migration.

As many others have, the Globe has interpreted declining migration as a bad sign for the economy’s dynamism. You can read my earlier work or watch my AIER talk to see I find the evidence more mixed, but today I want to call attention to an interesting side point the author made when talking about Massachusetts.

The author, Evan Horowitz, noted that the Bay State had very low in-migration, despite its strong local economy and higher education system. “We have some of the finest colleges in the world. Surely, some of the people who study in our slice of America should fall in love with local culture and decide to stay.”

This is an interesting point, and in fact this is exactly the intuition I had when I first started thinking about migration. However, some older evidence argues pretty convincingly that the link between where people attend college and where they ultimately work is not that strong, especially after accounting for where they lived before college.

Two 2004 papers, one written by economist Jeff Groen and the other by Groen and three co-authors, studied the link between attending college in a state and working in that state. The first paper looked directly at individuals, and the other looked at the relationship between the number of graduates from a state’s universities and the total stock of college-educated workers in that state. Neither method found the link to be very strong. They were interested in the efficacy of state-sponsored merit aid programs to recruit high-skill workers, but the point applies to the article as well. (Full disclosure: one co-author, John Bound, was later my postdoctoral mentor.)

Since overall migration has been decreasing since 2004, perhaps this has changed, but I doubt it. Attending a distant college is not exactly meant to be a permanent move like other migration. Those who do so are exactly the type of people who tend to be more open to distant job opportunities.

As an example, I graduated from the University of Dayton, Ohio. I saw nine of my old college friends at a wedding recently. Between the 10 of us, five were originally from Ohio; five (including myself) were not. Today, three of the Ohio guys are still in the state and none of the rest of us are. This is obviously not a scientific survey, but it’s a good illustration. Many college graduates make national job searches, and for those who don’t, where the college is has much less to do with location choice than family or other previous local ties.

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