Losing Our Minds: How to combat brain drain

When Gov. Zell Miller proposed the HOPE scholarship in the state of Georgia, it was a controversial idea. Any high school student with a GPA of 3.0 or higher could attend a state college nearly for free if he or she could maintain that GPA in college. Still, Gov. Miller was determined to keep talented high school students in the state of Georgia. In the Journal of Labor Economics, a study calculated the effects of HOPE and found this scholarship, in fact, did just what it intended:

Comparing Georgia with other southeastern states over the 1988–97 period, HOPE increased freshmen enrollment by 5.9%, or 2,889 students per year, which amounts to only 15% of freshmen scholarship recipients. Four‐year colleges account for most of the gain; a reduction in students leaving the state explains two‐thirds of the 4‐year‐school effect attributable to freshmen who have recently graduated from high school.

This incentive idea is interesting in light of the recent research by The Social Capital Project, studying the growing divergence of states’ and localities’ abilities to recruit and retain a highly-educated and skilled workforce. Although Gov. Miller was focused on keeping talented high schoolers in state, his idea begs the question, “Is there a way to keep talented post-grads from leaving too?” There are many places in the US that cannot offer enough incentives to keep highly educated and skilled workers in their communities.

Therefore, this high-skill chunk of the population moves to locations they have the best opportunities, community resources, etc., creating massive education gulfs between geographies. Consider, for example, the descriptions of rural hospitals suffering to recruit doctors. As described by a recent City Lab article,“This split geography of brain gain and brain drain poses huge implications not only for our economy but also for American society and politics.”

Politicians haven’t tried much in this area of policy, so what would be an equivalent incentive for keeping talented post-grad in more rural communities? In our experience, especially working with small colleges and hospitals, a key contributor to recruiting highly educated employees is the education offerings available to their children. As people with a significant amount of education themselves, they value a high-quality education for their children. But truthfully, school district assignments often controlled the quality of schools that are available. Weak public schools make it difficult for businesses to recruit highly educated workers from outside the community. Geographies suffering from brain drain are typically no match for the public education offered around superstar cities.

What if areas suffering from “brain drain” had the ability to offer new education options to the children of highly educated individuals? Wouldn’t such policies encourage less segregated social capital in the US? And if highly educated people were willing to live in more rural communities, wouldn’t their children, in turn, be more interested to stay as well?

The Social Capital Project, the research group reporting on brain drain across the US, put the problem this way:

Brain drain has significant consequences—economic, yes, but also political and cultural. By increasing social segregation, it limits opportunities for disparate groups to connect. And by siphoning a source of economic innovation from emptying communities, brain drain can also lead to crumbling institutions of civil society. As those natives who have more resources leave, those left behind may struggle to support churches, police, athletic leagues, parent-teacher associations, and local businesses.

Consider the issue at hand, and consider how targeted education incentives to areas with low-quality public schools might help these places compete. If the question is, how do we attract educated workers to areas with weak public schools? Then giving families educational freedom is clearly one of the answers.