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Michigan's brain drain: Which colleges lose the most graduates and why they leave – Detroit News

Four months after Neil Gurnani graduated from the University of Michigan’s school of engineering with a degree in computer science, he moved in August to the San Francisco Bay area to work for Amazon.
Gurnani said he listed San Francisco, Seattle and New York as his top three locations to work, over any place in Michigan, since they have large “tech hubs” and networks of industry professionals.
“What gravitated me to moving to the Bay Area is just the central hub of Silicon Valley and the tech spaces of booming startups and that ecosystem,” he said. “I think it’s a great place to start your career if you’re in the computer science or engineering space.”
Gurnani isn’t alone. Data indicates about 60% of 2010-18 graduates from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor live and work outside of Michigan after graduation. 
“I’ve been in Michigan most of my life,” said Gurnani, who grew up in Farmington Hills. “I think definitely getting an opportunity to try something new was definitely cool to me. So that’s another reason why I wanted to go somewhere out of state.”
Michigan is still experiencing a brain drain or an exodus of highly educated individuals from its higher education institutions, resulting in a lack of college-educated workers to fill the state’s highest-paying jobs and potentially missed opportunities for new business investment, observers say.
Detroit, for example, didn’t make the cut for Amazon’s top 20 choices for its second headquarters in North America, and Intel picked suburban Columbus, Ohio, to build a sprawling $20 billion microchip manufacturing plant, where the tech jobs will reportedly pay an average annual salary of $135,000.
“For people who are fortunate to have a lot of employment opportunities that are highly desirable in the market, there are better job opportunities elsewhere,” said Brad Hershbein, deputy director of research at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo. “Those people would find an easier time getting a job, or a better job, outside the state than inside it.”
About 71% of the graduates of Michigan’s higher education institutions between 2010 and 2018 reported they were still located in Michigan, according to a Detroit News review of crowdsourced, LinkedIn data collected by researchers for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The information covered where 2010-18 degree recipients from higher education institutions across the country live and work.
The data — collected by Hershbein, UM professors Shawn Martin and Kevin Strange, University of North Carolina professors Johnathan Conzelmann and Steven Hemelt and University of Chicago professor Andrew Simon — was used in a recent publication about college-specific labor markets for graduates across the United States. 
On average, at least 84,000 in-state freshmen began college every year at a Michigan university between 2010 and 2015, making up over half of the freshmen class at all but two Michigan colleges included in the analysis. 
Only four of the 73 Michigan institutions — a combination of the state’s 15 four-year public universities, 28 public community colleges and private colleges — reported a higher percentage of in-state graduates than in-state freshmen. The rest of Michigan’s schools report losses of in-state students following graduation.
Michigan Technological University and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor are ranked among the nation’s top schools for STEM education and are among five Michigan schools where less than half of 2010-18 graduates reported staying in Michigan. MTU had 38% staying in-state, while UM had 40%.
“The general trend is that the more selective the place, the more likely they (graduates) are going to leave the state,” Hershbein said. 
Graduates of four-year, bachelor’s degree-granting institutions are also more likely to leave the state than graduates from two-year institutions, he said.
Many students are attracted to Michigan’s affordable and high-quality education options and come from across the country and around the world to study.
Sarah Bular graduated from Western Michigan University last December with a degree in manufacturing engineering. She accepted a position as a Detroit Diesel engineer immediately after graduating but is moving to Wisconsin to work at an Ahlstrom-Munksjö paper mill.
“I work in the automotive industry right now. … It wasn’t an industry that I’d ever been in before so it’s kind of a new experience,” Bular said. “It’s not something I’m super passionate about, so I decided to look for a job in manufacturing in a work environment that I really enjoy.”
Bular said she didn’t have a particular preference when it came to living in-state or out of state, she just went where she could find a job in the industry she enjoys. This mindset is common among recent graduates since most non-automotive industries do not have hubs in Michigan.
Amit Hiremath is from India and graduated from Kettering University in 2018. He moved to New York to get his master’s degree in computer science. 
“There weren’t too many good opportunities in Michigan, other than U of M,” Hiremath said. “Once I finished my master’s, I applied for jobs out in California because that’s where a lot of the computer science jobs are.”
Hiremath currently works at the global accounting firm Ernst & Young in the San Francisco Bay area as a data science consultant. He said most of the highest-paying jobs in his industry are in California and New York, where the cost of living also is higher than in Michigan.
For some graduates, getting out of Michigan and out of the Midwest is a priority. Aviya Stein, originally from Wisconsin, graduated from Western Michigan University in 2021 with degrees in environmental sustainability studies and political science. After applying for jobs all over the country, she decided to work for the Montana Conservation Corps. 
“I knew that I didn’t want to be in the state or in the Midwest anymore,” Stein said. “I think after growing up in the Midwest and then going to school in the Midwest, I really just wanted some change.”
Detroit native Khalif Adegeye graduated from UM in April with a degree in mechanical engineering and recently moved to Seattle to work at Microsoft for reasons similar to Stein’s.
“I was born and raised in Michigan and I knew that just moving forward, I want to get a fuller experience of everything the world has to offer,” Adegeye said. “Leaving and trying something new was always the plan.”
The portion of Michigan’s population with a bachelor’s degree is relatively low at 18.2%, below the national average of 20.3%, according to the 2019 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The same data shows an above-average share of Michigan’s population has an associate degree or attended college but did not graduate.
“Michigan’s problem is two-fold,” said Don Grimes, a University of Michigan economic researcher. “Too many graduates with a BA or graduate degree leave the state. But perhaps even more important, too many of our residents go to college (and accumulate student loan debt) but don’t complete any college degree or settle for an associate degree.”
As a result, the demand for college-educated workers in Michigan’s highest-paying jobs exceeds the supply of Michigan residents with a bachelor’s degree, said Lou Glazer,  president of Michigan Future, a non-profit economic research group. 
“Michigan is not attracting and creating more of these well-paid, professional managerial jobs because we don’t have enough college grads,” Glazer said.
Some graduates, typically those from Michigan, decide to remain in or return to the state after graduating. Oakland University and the University of Michigan in Dearborn — historically commuter schools — reported the highest rates of 2010-18 graduates remaining in Michigan at 86% and 85%, respectively, according to the data.
Grand Blanc native Kianna Mateen, 25, graduated from Wayne State University in 2020 and works for Ford Motor Co. in Detroit.
“Convenience and probably networking is what made me stay in Michigan,” Mateen said. “Detroit seems like it’s doing good now. It seems like it’s evolving, so I like witnessing that change. … I really like the city, so that motivated me to stay in Michigan overall.”
More than 81% of Wayne State graduates from 2010-18 reported living or working in Michigan, with 78.5% reporting their metro area as Detroit.
Fiona Nanney grew up in Romeo and graduated from Michigan State University in 2019 with a degree in chemical engineering. After graduation, Nanney struggled to find employment in-state and moved to Virginia to work for Merck pharmaceuticals. Six months after moving, she accepted a job at General Motors Co. and moved back home.
“I needed to work and start making money so I started applying to jobs outside of Michigan,” she said. “Basically, the reason that I’m in Michigan currently is I like it and all my friends, family and my boyfriend are here.”
Retaining and attracting more college-educated individuals to Michigan is not a simple task. The state reports a decrease in high school seniors over the last decade, shrinking the pool of in-state students to enroll at Michigan universities.
Some Michigan universities have created programs to increase retention and help students complete their degrees after taking a hiatus from school. OU, Wayne State and Henry Ford College partnered to forgive student debt in 2019 and help students at risk of dropping out complete their degrees. Similarly, Wayne State University started the Warrior Way Back program to forgive up to $1,500 in student debt for returning students who had not attended class in two or more years.
While there are high-paying jobs in Michigan for college graduates, Glazer said the issue of attracting talent is more complex than supply and demand.
“For us, creating places where young professionals want to live and work is also a challenge,” Glazer said. “Too many kids who grow up in Michigan and get a four-year degree are still going to Chicago, New York, Seatle, Los Angeles … because Michigan doesn’t offer that same quality of life they’re looking for.”
Many smaller Michigan companies struggle to offer competitive salaries compared with large coastal tech companies, said Todd Hohauser, CEO of Hohauser and Associates, a Michigan-based executive recruiting firm. 
“It is very challenging for smaller companies to compete with the Googles, the Amazons and Toyotas, who are recruiting a lot of … engineers,” Hohauser said. “There’s a lot more sexy places to be in the United States (than Michigan).”
The state can always do a better job of showcasing the beauty of Michigan and marketing it as a good place to live, he added. It is also significantly easier to recruit individuals who attended a university in Michigan, Hohauser said.
Attracting experienced, mid-career professionals is also important, especially when it comes to executive recruiting, Hohauser said. For many recent Michigan graduates, like Adegeye, returning to Michigan is always an option.
“Coming back home to Michigan is definitely on the table,” the recent UM graduate said. “There’s always an opportunity to reflect back and come back to where I started from.”
Twitter: @hmackayDN