Plugging the brain drain

Northeast Ohio has enough bus bike racks

We are still losing the battle for young Northeast Ohio brains. It’s called brain drain, an overused description of the phenomena where our newly minted college grads with new skills and abilities and high student debt go to where the most interesting and highest paying jobs can be found.

We have tried everything to keep them here, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside consultants and invested millions in new tech companies with the expectation of growth in new, high-paying jobs. We put bike racks on buses, created pop-up parks, developed apartments in downtowns and then waited to see if young, cool people would stay. But we haven’t seen much in the way of real results yet. Our best and brightest continue to migrate to other places. So maybe we need to try something different: investing in them before they graduate.

Debt-free education

A few years ago, Mount Union started a program with Alliance City Schools, called Investment Alliance, through which the university provides free tuition for the top 15 graduates from Alliance High School. Once in the program, the students get involved with local businesses. They get internships, take tours, meet with the business owners and CEOs of small and midsize companies in all types of industries. The idea is that if we educate them and they graduate without debt, and they get a chance to see how fun and exciting the local businesses can be, they will stay.

Many have accepted the offer. This year, all 15 of the top Alliance High students took advantage of the program. According to Jeff Talbert, Superintendent of Alliance City Schools, he has students from other districts coming to Alliance just to participate and compete for free tuition.

The investment by Mount Union is more than $1 million per cohort. With dwindling overall college enrollment as the number of school-age students drops, the university can’t continue to support this program alone. Higher education isn’t cheap. We know it’s worth it though. We see the results in our own kids.

Return on investment

What if all of the 20+ accredited colleges and universities in Northeast Ohio were to offer such a program? How many of our top students would discover that they can find meaningful and even fun employment right here? How great would that be not only for them, but for the small and midsize enterprises that get the best and brightest employees? But it will take funding. Foundations and local companies could contribute through scholarship programs at the universities and ask them to collaborate with local schools to create similar programs. I can’t imagine that there would be a single school system to refuse an offer like that.

Let’s stop lamenting about losing our graduates and the quality and number of applicants we have to choose from and take an active role in preventing brain drain. Wouldn’t you rather have a say in where your donation dollars go, and get a return on your investment for your company? We need to plug the drain. It’s worth the effort.

John Myers is helping the University of Mount Union build out its entrepreneurship program, connecting with manufacturing companies to provide R&D and to establish a patent and IP commercialization policy as well as managing its incubator.