Battling the Brain Drain—In-State College Enrollment Affects Future Residence

States subsidize public higher education with the goal of building an educated workforce. But college-educated workers can and often do migrate across states after completing their education. The resulting “brain drain” may harm states who invest in higher education only to have the benefits reaped elsewhere. So is the investment worth it? Does encouraging young people to attend college in-state affect where they live later in life? Or does educating more young people in a state just result in more out-migration? John Winters studies these questions and offers policy implications for the United States.

Winters combined recent data from the American Community Survey with historical data from the 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses to follow groups of students from college to adulthood. He leveraged variation in in-state tuition rates to estimate the effect of in-state college enrollment on same-state residence years later.

Winters found that increasing home-state enrollment by 100 students on average caused 41 additional college attendees to reside in their home state later in life. This effect is less than one-to-one—not every in-state student stays in state after graduation—but also meaningfully different from zero. In other words, investment in in-state college education does keep some talent in the state.

What are the implications? States that seek to build their educated workforce by encouraging in-state enrollment can have some success. It may be that college students develop connections to people, places, and things during college that alter their post-college location decisions. However, some students will inevitably leave their home state after college regardless of where they attend college.

Furthermore, higher education policies are often very expensive and may have limited effects on in-state attendance. States using in-state enrollment to build their college-educated workforce should look for cost-effective policies targeted to students who are likely to respond to the policy consistent with the goals of the state.

Read the full study in the Journal of Human Resources: “In-State College Enrollment and Later Life Location Decisions,” by John Winters.

John Winters is associate professor of economics at the Iowa State University.