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New UW grads often leave Wisconsin. A new campaign aims to draw them back.

Five years after graduation, just 10 percent of out-of state UW students retain an address in the state, according to figures from the system’s annual accountability report.

Image By: Jade Sheng

When Elsa Davids considered applying to UW-Madison as a high school senior from Albuquerque, N.M., she didn’t know much about the state she would be committing four years of her life to — and the impression of Wisconsin she got from the people around her wasn’t always positive.

“What I heard from other people was 'drink a lot of beer, eat a lot of cheese, it's going to be really cold,’” Davids said. “And that it was a pretty conservative state, and that was essentially all I heard.”

Davids was undeterred by the warnings and became one of the more than 7,500 students annually from around the country and the globe who enroll at UW System schools.

These students represent a potential boon to the state’s economy: thousands of highly-skilled workers coming out of the UW System with a connection to Wisconsin already in place. This is especially important in a state that trails behind others in the upper Midwest in the education of its workforce and consistently ranks among the bottom five states in attracting new residents.

Despite a strong high school graduation rate and affordable public higher education compared to neighboring states, Wisconsin’s workforce lacks highly skilled workers.

Just 29 percent of the state’s adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, three-and-a-half percent below the national average.

But when it comes time for students like Davids to graduate and move into the workforce, that “new resident” potential is rarely realized. Five years after graduation, just 10 percent of out-of state UW students retain an address in the state, according to figures from the system’s annual accountability report.

These recent graduates predominantly go south to Chicago and surrounding suburbs. Thirty-two percent of out-of-state students go on to live in Illinois — seeking out career opportunities they believe aren’t available in the Badger State, according to research from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

But that same WEDC research also exposed a potential bright spot for the state’s long-term prospects. Even after leaving Wisconsin, UW System graduates tend to hold positive opinions of the state and would consider moving back.

And with Chicago experiencing an unusual population decline — it was the only one of the country’s top 10 metro areas to lose population in 2015 and 2016 — WEDC hopes to attract some of these departed graduates back to their alma mater’s state.

That attempt comes in the form of a $1 million advertising campaign, set to begin this spring, targeting recent college graduates in the Chicago area. The exodus of young college graduates — exactly the demographic WEDC is targeting — represents “low-hanging fruit” for advertisements according to Kelly Lietz, WEDC’s vice president of marketing and brand management.

WEDC is hoping to use the advertisements — which will be found in subway stations, health clubs, bars and just about anywhere else affluent 21-35 year olds congregate — to change the stereotypical perceptions of Wisconsin that Davids got from her friends when applying to UW.

Instead of cows, beer and cold, WEDC wants to sell Wisconsin as a safe, cheap place to raise a family that doesn’t compromise on quality of life — what Lietz calls the state’s “personal fulfillment opportunities.”

“We are America's dairyland certainly, but we're much more than that as well,” Lietz said.

Wisconsin’s ability to attract new highly skilled residents, and retain them long-term, will only become more important as the state transitions to an economy suited for the 21st century, according to a study of the state’s long-term employment trends conducted by Tessa Conroy and Matthew Kures of UW-Extension. And the looming arrival of a massive Foxconn facility near the Illinois-Wisconsin border has only accelerated the demands.

The factory’s proposed site in Racine is within commuting distance of many of the northern Chicago suburbs. To entice people to live in Wisconsin, the state and its stakeholders will need to find an appeal other than just employment.

“One of the things we're very aware of is the fact that young people choose where they want to be first and where they want to work second,” Lietz said. “We're combining the jobs message with that lifestyle message to make sure that they understand that they have an opportunity for a very full life here in Wisconsin.”

Those messages don’t seem to be getting through to students by the time they graduate. Despite emphasizing the connection between the state and its universities through the Wisconsin Idea, students say the UW System has failed to help them establish connections outside of the UW community.

Several UW-Madison seniors, when discussing their reasons for leaving the state after graduation, described feeling much less connected to the state as a whole than their peers from Wisconsin.

“It's been a very positive experience, but there's nothing keeping me in Wisconsin,” Davids said of her time at Madison. “I've never felt that it's been an emphasis to give back to the state. I've never really seen that in any of my courses or heard that repeated by any of my TAs or professors.”

Until that sentiment changes, out-of-state students may continue to leave the state in large numbers in pursuit of opportunities elsewhere, a loss of the very people that WEDC and UW-Extension researchers say are the most important for the state’s economy in the 21st century.

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