Where the Brains Are Going

Updated 1/19/11 1:03 p.m.

Cities and regions across America and the world have made significant efforts to attract and retain young college graduates over the past decade or so. This has been driven by growing awareness that the ability to attract human capital, as well the ability to attract companies, plays a key role in economic competitiveness. And since young adults are the most mobile members of the population -- people n their mid-20s are three to five times more likely to move than middle aged folks -- the ability to attract them early in life can pay big, lasting dividends.

A new study by Brookings demographer William Frey examines trends in the migration decisions of young adults and college grads (as separate groups) over the years 2007-2009. His findings are especially interesting and relevant, since they cover the period since the onset of the economic crisis and reset.

The economic crisis has caused a significant decline in migration, with the mobility of Americans hitting record lows. Young adults and college graduates are no exception, Frey finds, with a growing number of them staying put or moving back with their parents. That said, the mobility of both college grads and young adults remains considerably higher than for Americans as a whole, according to Frey's analysis.

But where have young adults and college grads been heading since the economic crisis?

To answer this, Frey charts the migration trends of both young adults and college grads across America's 52 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas, those that are home to more than one million people, using nearly released Census data for the 2007-2009 period.

Before the crisis, Frey notes, young college grads had been strongly attracted to Sunbelt bubble metros like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and California's Inland Empire, where housing was cheap, credit readily available, and local economies were booming around real estate and services. But that has changed. In the wake of the crisis, young adults are flowing towards larger cities, college towns, knowledge-based and creative economy metros, and even some older Rustbelt metros are beginning to increase their ability to retain and attract them.

Austin topped the list in attracting college grads in the 2007-2009 period -- it was the only U.S. metro to register more than a two percent gain in college grads. Two other Texas metros -- Dallas and Houston -- also did well, making the top five in terms of total migration, along with Denver and Seattle.  Raleigh, North Carolina,, with its concentration of universities and tech, and Portland, with its quality of life, registered large percentage gains. Migration of young adults to places like Phoenix, California's Inland Empire, Atlanta, and Charlotte, which topped the list in 2005-2007, the immediate pre-crisis period, slowed.

The chart above, from Frey's analysis, shows American metros that have either reduced their migration losses of college grads and young adults or turned previous losses into gains. It's perhaps not surprising, in light of the crisis and reset, that big cities and metros like New York, Boston, D.C., Chicago, and LA, as well as tech centers like San Francisco and San Diego, have improved their ability to hold onto and attract these groups; these locations offer thicker labor markets, more abundant economic and networking opportunities, as well as slightly more affordable housing.

But perhaps the best news is that a significant number of older Rustbelt metros -- like Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Hartford, and Milwaukee -- that had been losing young adults and college grads have stemmed those previous losses, while others -- including Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Baltimore, as well as New Orleans -- have begun to turn them into gains.

While clearly the economic crisis has caused more young people to stay put in these locations, two other factors have influenced this shift. On the one hand, many of these regions have made long-term efforts to transform from industrial to knowledge-driven economies, which we know from the experience of greater Boston and other places take the better part of a generation to take hold. On the other hand, some of these cities and regions have also been at the forefront of efforts to develop strategies to make themselves more open and attractive to young college graduates, and these strategies may be starting to pay dividends.

It's abundantly clear that the economic crisis and Great Reset have caused mobility -- long a hallmark of the American economy -- to stall, making it harder for both individual workers and local economies to adjust to new economic conditions. According to Frey's research, it has slowed the long-running flow of younger people and college grads to the Sunbelt, tilting the landscape of talent retention and attraction toward larger cities and metros, while reinforcing the position of tech centers and quality-of-place destinations like Austin, Raleigh-Durham, Seattle, the Bay Area, Denver, and Portland. At the same time, it appears to have put older Rustbelt metros back on the talent map, with some like Pittsburgh actually registering real gains.

Certainly the housing crisis and the ongoing economic transformation has played a role, but it also suggests that the longer-run efforts that these communities have been making to transform their economies, as well their more recent strategies to upgrade their quality-of-place and in general improve their ability to compete for young talent may well be paying off. And that is very good news.