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Midwest 'brain drain' persists. And job opportunity is the main driver

U.S. Department of Education
Many Midwestern and Great Plains states lost more college-educated residents than they attracted in 2022. That's part of a continuing trend.

“Brain drain,” the migration of people with a higher education degree, remains an issue in most of the Midwest and Great Plains. Recent U.S. Census data shows many states are losing some of their most educated residents.

Anastasiya Miller moved 1,300 miles away to Tampa, Florida, from her hometown this past year.

“I was excited,” Miller said. “I knew that I wanted to move out of Oklahoma. I had lived in Colorado for a summer prior to moving to Tampa.”

Miller grew up on the outskirts of Edmond, Oklahoma, and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2022. She got a job with Kraft Heinz in her home state, then headed to Florida after getting a promotion as a sales analyst.

If she comes back to the middle of the country, Miller expects it will be to Chicago, where her company is headquartered.

“Just for opportunity sake,” Miller said. “That’s probably where most of my ventures will lead me.”

Thousands of other college graduates through the Midwest and Great Plains left their states in 2022, according to the latest American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. Research from the University of Nebraska at Omaha shows job-centered reasons are the main driver for why people have moved.

This migration of people with a higher education degree has been dubbed “brain drain” and the opposite effect, “brain gain.” Brain drain or gain focuses on the population with a college education or higher.

Josie Schafer, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research, has been tracking brain drain using census data since about 2010. She said there are jobs available, but many people are looking for what she calls job density.

“I think folks are really looking for those places where it's not just one good job, it's the potential over a lifetime for lots of good jobs,” Schafer said.

Center for Public Affairs Research/ University of Nebraska at Omaha

In Nebraska, 4,610 people with a bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree left the state in 2022. Schafer said while that's part of a trend, it’s important to understand there remains a high number of people with degrees both in Nebraska and states including Iowa, Missouri and Oklahoma.

For instance, there remain over 450,000 Nebraskans within the state who have degrees.

“So in terms of the overall size of the of people leaving, it's really not that great,” Schafer said. “It's really just that trending down factor that we're really attuned to.”

Other states like Kansas and South Dakota gained people with degrees in 2022. In the previous year, Kansas lost more people with degrees that it had gained. Schafer said many states will have a brain gain in urban spaces.

Although there is a downward trend in many Midwestern states, Schafer said there are economic ties being built through investments and internship programs in Nebraska.

“Entrepreneurship is something I'm really focused on in Nebraska,” Schafer said. “It's really hard to get big businesses to just move here and create great jobs, but we can certainly grow jobs from within.”

Schafer said a lack of affordable housing is also an issue that can spur people to move out of state.

The Center for Rural Affairs is a rural advocacy nonprofit organization based in Nebraska, which focuses on economic opportunities. Jillian Linster, the center’s interim policy director, said there is a lot of interest in rural economic development.

“I know that folks in rural Nebraska are invested in their communities, in revitalizing them and strengthening them, in welcoming new community members,” Linster said.

She said areas with development opportunities include broadband access, clean energy, and agriculture.

Linster, who lives and works in a rural area, said such places are filled with knowledge and wisdom.

“We do have a responsibility as rural community members ourselves to actively work to make our communities the kind of places where people will choose to live and work,” she said. “And we have to think carefully about the decisions that we make and the kind of community that we build based on our personal decisions. But I see a great deal of positive growth in our rural communities in Nebraska."

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

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