Evansville Courier & Press

State educating for export

36.2 percent of resident college graduates leave Indiana after graduation

By Ryan Reynolds
Courier & Press staff writer
464-7686 or ryanr@evansville.net
September 29, 2003

Josh Claybourn is the kind of person a growing city would love to count as one of its residents.

He is an educated, motivated young man who is willing to be as involved with community service as he is with any job in the private sector. Claybourn, 22, already knocks on the doors of Evansville's elected officials, offering his opinions on topics such as city-county government unification.

This is his home, and when the North High School alumus finishes a three-year law school stint at Indiana University's Indianapolis campus, he would like to come back here. But he doesn't know if he will.

"I want to move back here after school, but I don't know if I'll be able to," he said. "There are a few good firms here, but I'm not sure there will be opportunities."

Claybourn's sentiments echo those of a growing number of people his age. People who grow up in this area and get educated in this state, often leave for other places when it comes time to earn a paycheck.

Why does it matter?

Jim McKinney, a member of Evansville's Vision 2000 group and a father of two teenagers, says the city will pay the price a few years from now if it can't retain its young people.

"People here will see their children leaving and not coming back. They won't see their grandkids grow up here," said McKinney. "They'll see the infrastructure decline here and we won't be able to maintain it. Their own property taxes will rise because, without new growth, we'll have to increase the tax burden on the old stock."

The Indiana Business Research Center in July released its population projections for 2020 for the state's 12 commerce regions. The center expects the 25-to-54 age group in Evansville's commerce region - Vanderburgh, Posey, Warrick, Spencer, Perry, Gibson, Pike, Dubois, Knox, Martin and Daviess counties - to decrease by 21,600 people between 2000 and 2020.

The 2000 Census listed 190,918 people in the Evansville commerce region. If the research center's projections hold true, there would be 169,356 here in that age group by 2020 - an 11.3 percent drop.

If not for a projected loss of 34,800 people of that age group in the Gary area, it would be the state's worst expected drop in people in an age group composed almost entirely of working people.

Nationally, the population for that age group is expected to rise between 2000 and 2020 by 1.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"This is the time in life when labor force participation is highest and people are their most economically productive," said John Besl, a demographer with the Indiana Business Research Center. "A drop in the number of workers in this age range would almost certainly reduce the workforce available to produce goods and services that drive the state's economy."

According to figures compiled by the National Center for Educational Statistics, Indiana ranks 14th in the country in producing college graduates. However, the state is 44th of 50 in the number of people 25 and over who have a college degree.

The state is giving young people all the training they need, but then providing very little for them to do here with their education.

"For kids who go elsewhere, I think it has a lot to do with their vocation," said Vicki Snyder, principal of Evansville's Signature School, an alternative charter high school. It is a problem that state officials have recognized. The Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, in a study on postsecondary school graduate migration, found that this state "is a significant exporter of graduates with postsecondary degrees."

"For all degree levels, 36.2 percent of Hoosiers leave the state after graduation, and 89.2 percent of nonresidents leave," the report stated. "(Indiana) is a significant importer of high school graduates pursuing a college education, but clearly both sets of graduates contribute to a 'brain drain' or flight of human capital from Indiana."

Among the state's top programs - engineering, technology, math and science students trained at the state's two research campuses, Indiana University and Purdue University - 32 percent of students left the state after graduation.

Locally, the picture is different. The University of Southern Indiana more closely matches the state's retention rate for four-year residential schools, a group that also includes Indiana State, Ball State and Indiana-Purdue-Indianapolis.

Evansville's biggest public postsecondary school, USI, keeps nearly four of every five of its graduates in the state.

However, those seeking high-tech jobs find only crumbs in this area.

Ruel Loehr, a 25-year-old Boonville, Ind., native, left Indiana to work for IBM in Vermont because jobs in the Hoosier State were sparse. These days, he writes software that helps control robotics.

"I think I had one interview in Evansville," Loehr said. "And the pay for the job wasn't even close to what was offered in other places."

Loehr said that, among his college friends from Purdue's computer science program, most have left Indiana.

"If the state wants to appeal to some of these companies, they're going to have to start offering some major tax breaks," Loehr said.

The Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute study also found that the state's graduates who left Indiana did so overwhelmingly because of employment-related issues, and that "quality of life is a factor in the failure to keep highly educated persons in Indiana."

It is those last two points that people in Evansville point to most when they complain about this area. While the city has a reputation as a "great place to raise a family," spurring economic growth requires more than a place that's comfortable for people with two kids, two cars and a mortgage.

Richard Florida, a professor at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, argues that for a city to experience economic growth, the location has to be attractive to members of what he has dubbed the "creative class" - workers whose professions require that they be creative-minded.

Florida, in a February 2001 piece he penned for Washington Monthly, described the group this way:

"(It is) a fast-growing, highly educated, and well-paid segment of the workforce on whose efforts corporate profits and economic growth increasingly depend," Florida wrote. "Members of the creative class do a wide variety of work in a wide variety of industries - from technology to entertainment, journalism to finance, high-end manufacturing to the arts.

"They do not consciously think of themselves as a class. Yet they share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit."

And while many business leaders have made adjustments to their workplaces to better adapt to this group, civic leaders "have failed to understand that what is true for corporations is also true for cities and regions: Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper; those that fail don't," Florida argues.

Part of luring these types of workers involves providing an environment that is attractive to young people: They want nature trails and bike lanes, jogging courses and extreme sports venues, Florida believes. On weekends, they want a number of places offering varieties of music, dance and other forms of entertainment.

"I have mountains a half-hour from where I live," said Loehr, who now resides in Burlington, Vt. "I can pay $70 for a Jet Blue ticket and be in New York City in a few minutes. And it's only two hours to Montreal. There's just more to do here."

"Creative Class" members won't always utilize such venues, but they want to know they're there. And Evansville's options are seen by many in the college age group as limited.

"I love the city, and I think Evansville has a good educational system," said Mark Palmenter, a 1996 Memorial High School graduate who is now in Boston attending Harvard Business School. "But in terms of economic opportunity, there is a lot more on the East Coast."

Palmenter said he would like to come back to Evansville some day, if the right opportunity presents itself.

"Evansville's a risky place for a recent grad to waltz into and start up a business. I think that, over time, as we learn about how to run businesses many of us will consider moving back," he said. "Then, when we know what we're doing, we can launch into a city that has everything one needs to balance both work and life: great schools, good people and a nice location to major cities."

But one young man and his friends are giving it a try.

Paul Boren hopes his plan sounds so good that it can't help but come true.

He has opened Synchronicity, an art gallery, near Haynie's Corner, one of Evansville's most blighted areas, and within the next year his desire is to start two others in the same neighborhood. His dream is that one of the most economically deficient areas of the city becomes a boomtown of sorts for artists.

"If we can just get some people down here, the businesses will follow," said Boren. "And I'll be honest. We haven't made any money yet either."

The Reitz High School alumus has big plans that involve high technology and the skills of people in a wide array of fields, from engineering to architecture to fine art. His dreams are huge, expensive and risky.

But he thinks it can work.

Oh. And he's just 24 years old.

While other artists are running from Evansville to cities such as Chicago or Tampa Bay, Boren and his friends - 37-year-old artist Danny Fitzgerald and 33-year-old Dustin Barrows among them - are heading full-tilt to the Center City in hopes of leading a revolution that will succeed where other Downtown artistic ventures have failed.

Not only do they want to bring a sense of culture to Downtown Evansville, they want to link their art galleries technologically to other corners of the city via technology hubs, kiosks in other shops and restaurants that will allow customers not only to look at the newest paintings and sculptures, but to talk via Internet chatting, listen to music by local bands and, maybe, burn compact discs.

How serious is the venture? So far, they've put $50,000 into a run-down building that they're paying $400 a month to lease.

"Evansville's a test market for everything," Boren said. "Fast food chains and other stores try things here first. If ideas make it in Evansville, they can make it anywhere. We think our ideas can work here, too."

Their idea is to spawn a neighborhood in which artists of all kinds thrive, and in doing so, create an atmosphere that will keep more of their colleagues in Evansville.

"It's been said that this city's top export is its young people," said Fitzgerald. "Maybe that can change. Why shouldn't we make something that would keep people here, instead of sending them off to Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville or St. Louis?"