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2016-11-22 23:12:18
Moving On: The States That College Graduates Are Most Likely to Leave

This year’s election has forced Americans to take notice of class divisions between workers. And while these divisions may at first ring of lazy stereotypes — the rural Rust Belt worker without a college degree and the coastal urban college-educated worker — they’re rooted in a real dynamic. Many of the most skilled workers — young people with college degrees — are leaving struggling regions of America for cities, specifically for cities in Southern and coastal states.

There are clear economic reasons for their choice. Dense metro areas tend to produce more jobs and make workers more productive. Wages, for all kinds of workers, are also higher.

In theory, these incentives should prompt workers of all levels of education to move to metro areas. But moving outside one’s region is relatively rare these days, and even more rare for someone without a college degree.

Moving is actually quite uncommon in advanced economies. The United States has been one of the exceptions. It has one of the highest rates of internal migration among advanced economies, and it has since at least the middle of the 19th century. A study comparing thousands of American and British census records between 1850 and 1880 showed that nearly two-thirds of American men moved across county lines, while only a quarter of British men did.

For America’s first century, internal migration was largely driven by farming — moving west to new land. But toward the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century, migration began to be driven by people moving to American cities — small and large.

This pattern added a twist after World War II, when more people began moving outside their local region, particularly to the Sunbelt. Before the 1940s, roughly 15 percent of Americans lived outside a census division in which they were born, and by 1970 that had jumped to 25 percent.

But in the 1980s, people started moving less. Internal migration has been in gradual decline ever since across all demographic groups. In the 1980s, 3 percent of men moved across state lines each year; over the last decade that figure has dropped to 1.7 percent. The decline is similar for women. Between 2001 and 2010, the demographic groups with the lowest rate of interstate migration were people with less than a high school diploma (1 percent) or nothing beyond a high school diploma (1.2 percent). Migration rates for college-educated people were roughly twice that.

In the regional competition for the most skilled and most mobile workers in America, noncoastal states are at a disadvantage. Although they have some large cities, they tend to be farther from other large cities than is the case in the coastal areas. The economists Stuart Rosenthal and William Strange looked at the benefits of density and found that they tend to dissipate over distances greater than five miles.

This advantage provided by clusters of cities is helpful for coastal states, which tend to contain many big metro areas, like San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco in California, or the so-called Acela corridor stretching from Washington to Boston. But it can be bad news for inland areas with one or two large cities that are farther apart: Omaha and Kansas City, Mo., say; or Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.

The flows of young college graduates out of a state can often be replaced by flows of young college graduates moving in. The problem that many interior states face is that young college graduates moving into the state aren’t keeping up with those that are leaving.

“Lots of talented young people all over the country are eager to see new sights — what is different, and a problem for Michigan is that we have an unusually low rate of immigration,” said Charley Ballard, a regional economist at Michigan State University, in an email.

Keeping young college graduates would help alleviate the effects of globalization and technological change on these local economies. It’s not surprising that many states with net losses in their young and college-educated populations also broke for Donald J. Trump.

The map shows the total net migration figures for those with a college degree under 40 between 2000 and 2015. (People who grew up in one state, went to college in another and then moved somewhere else are counted as migrating from the state where they attended college.) Generally, Rust Belt and Midwest states like Ohio, Michigan and Iowa, and Plains states like South Dakota and Nebraska have seen the largest net losses in younger, college-educated people.

The places that are gaining college graduates tend to be coastal and Southern states like California, Maryland, Texas and South Carolina. Two exceptions to this trend are New York and Massachusetts, states that also produce a large number of college graduates to begin with.

One reason that inland states have a reasonable case for disappointment at not keeping their young college graduates: They’re helping to pay to educate them. A majority of college graduates get their degrees from public universities, which are partly funded by state governments. Of course this doesn’t diminish the other important benefits that public universities bring to each state’s economy, but if states are losing more college graduates than they are holding or bringing in, they’re effectively subsidizing other states’ skilled labor forces.

Cities in these states do have some advantages. The cost of living is lower, mostly because housing is cheaper. Outdoor recreation is often more accessible. Still, these areas are in a bind: Without jobs to offer, luring young college-educated people is hard. At the same time, it’s hard to create jobs without a college-educated labor force.

To Mr. Ballard, it’s not clear that one policy proposal exists that could jump-start the process. “It really is a chicken-and-egg problem,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody out there that thinks there’s some quick, easy solution.”

In the days when cities competed for manufacturing, advertising low wages and reliable utilities was often enough to draw businesses. Mr. Ballard pins his hopes of attracting more young, college-educated workers to Michigan on efforts to market cultural amenities and natural beauty. He points to the Grand Rapids ArtPrize, an arts festival that awards half a million dollars to artists, as something that has brought some cultural cachet to that city, Michigan’s second largest.

“It’s not all about jobs,” Mr. Ballard said. “You’ve got to have it be a place where people want to live.”