Opinion

Spotlight on Students: Wisconsin’s Brain Drain Beyond the Numbers

Over the past ten years, an average of 6752 students have graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison annually. After years of laborious classes and preparation for cycle after cycle of midterms, thousands of graduates walk off campus ready to take on the world as proud badgers. 

Yet, nearly 60% of graduates each year choose to leave Wisconsin to pursue their post-graduate ventures — be it to serve other communities with Americorps and the Peace Corps, join the military or enter the workforce. 

This phenomenon, accompanied by a lack of highly educated non-natives moving into Wisconsin, creates the deficit known as the “brain drain.” 

You may have heard the expression thrown into a spiel about grad school or while scanning the headlines that advocate for corporate expansion and job mobility. 

But this isn’t simply a buzzword, it is a trend — and a jarring one at that.

Many of these students bop down to Illinois — 16 percent of employed 2016-’17 grads — followed by Minnesota, New York, and California, respectively. While the magnitude heading to our neighbors to the West and South may be attributed to family ties, the latter are most likely due to industry growth and job availability. 

As graduates move out of state to other cities and countries, the Badger State loses a large portion of its highly skilled and educated population. As highly educated clusters form in major metropolitan areas, regional economic disparities continue to grow in states of middle America, like Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin officials on both sides of the aisle have proposed various incentives — notably via state income tax adjustments — to attract corporations and individuals to the state, spurring innovation and thus, economic growth. While the Foxconn situation has prompted various criticisms from environmental to ethical concerns, pulling a large tech corporation has seemingly fared well for “superstar cities,” like Seattle and San Francisco. 

Not only does the brain drain and educated mobility reinforce such geographical issues, it also exacerbates political divisions, which can be detrimental in an era where the need of the Electoral College has come into question. 

According to the PEW Research Center, a larger portion of highly-educated people hold liberal views, while less-educated people hold conservative views. 

Similarly, those living in urban areas tend to hold liberal political views, while those in rural areas vote conservative. And so, with this nation-wide issue of the brain drain, of which Wisconsin graduates contribute to, Democratic areas continue to become more densely Democratic. 

Given the fact that less populous states are given more representation in the United States Senate, and less populous regions are given more weight in the Electoral College, it is sometimes the case that the will of the minority outweighs that of the majority. See the 2016 Presidential Election for further details. 

More than the political consequences, the brain drain leaves behind communities of rural America. Whether this takes form as lackluster or inaccessible healthcare, continued impacts of the 2008 recession, or an absence of resources to deal with crises like rising suicide rates — middle America deserves better. 

This kind of increasing economic and social segregation will only continue to erode the little cohesion that binds this country together. 

Despite being an issue driven by the job market and economic forces, the brain drain can be deterred through more incentives by local universities, cities, and state governments. 

And so, for the goodwill of Wisconsin as a state and the United States as a democracy, the brain drain that has persisted for nearly 80 years now, must be curbed. 

But, what do the students directly impacted by this truly think? Learn more about why so many students are leaving the state, or are choosing to stay after snagging their diploma, straight from the sources themselves; here is what current students of UW-Madison and recent graduates have to say:  

Ari Baldassano, Class of 2019
“I stayed in Wisconsin because I was working part-time at a job I really liked that was offering me a full-time job after graduation. I’m not from WI so my goal is to eventually get back to Chicago, but I’m more than OK with staying here for a while to grow professionally before taking that next step. It’s hard to be living here financially though, I’m finding that after retirement, short-term saving, and mandatory expenses I really only have just enough to treat myself to a few coffees each week. Rent is very expensive, and my industry pays next to nothing so it’s a very thin line to walk to stay above water.”

Claire VanValkenburg, Class of 2019
“I feel stuck. Like concrete shoes in quicksand stuck. President Trump is erasing years of progress on immigration reform, reproductive rights, healthcare and human rights… Why should we stay? Ireland has experienced a massive progressive shift as millennials replace Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers in civic participation across the island… The rule “don’t talk politics or religion at the dinner table” is ludicrous to the Irish, it’s more like “don’t bring work talk to the dinner table.” I’ve known some Irish friends for more than a year and a half, and I still don’t know what most of them do for a full-time job. Instead, I know their hobbies, passions, political leanings, beliefs and morals. It made me realize how blown up and backwards America’s work culture is. The combination of the progressive wave of change in Ireland, and the people’s ability to yearn for, and be unafraid of meaningful communication draws me across the Atlantic… Dear Wisconsin, I tried to apply my talents here. UW-Madison treated me like a number, friends became enemies at the mere mention of divisive topics, and my tireless efforts at progressive change yielded little reward. So, I’m choosing to go where my talents are wanted, where they will actually be of use. I don’t want to change the world – I don’t believe that’s possible – I want to be a part of saving it. So while America bickers over whether life begins at conception, whether mental illness is grounds enough to restrict gun access, whether Facebook should have its own currency – I’ll be across the sea, with the kind of people who listen and get things done.”

Lauren Hoffarth, Senior
“I am still deciding if I want to stay in Madison after I graduate. However, at this point I will most likely be moving to Washington DC. I plan to move because of the draw of more jobs related to public health policy, a desire to experience another community, and explore a bigger city. I understand the worry of a “brain-drain” in Wisconsin, but I don’t think that the responsibility should be placed on the students to stay. I think it is important that the state and higher education institutions prioritize preventing a brain-drain from Wisconsin. In addition to retaining highly-educated students in Wisconsin is important, the state also need to focus on attracting graduates from other areas. I know that proposals like financial incentives to recent college students have been suggested on both sides of the aisle as a solution to the “brain-drain”. However, that would not convince me personally to stay in the state. Since I plan on moving primarily for professional development reasons, the only thing that would convince me would be more available jobs in my field of interest.”

Becca Chadwick, Junior
“I do not plan on staying in Madison post-grad because I want to travel elsewhere and experience parts of the country that are brand new to me. I have lived in the Midwest my entire life, and it’s always been a dream of mine to live in a warmer climate, so as of right now I’m planning on pursuing my Master’s of school psychology somewhere on the west coast. But before I head off to grad school, I am going to backpack through Europe for a month. My plans for the future are highly motivated by traveling and seeing the world, due to my quite sheltered upbringing in this frozen tundra we call home. I want to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone during my twenties before the real world really hits me. I’ve loved the city of Madison and all of the people I’ve met, but it hasn’t truly challenged me in the way I want to be.”

Jenny Lindloff, Junior 

“Staying in Madison is always an option for me. My family is from around here and I grew up coming to Madison every week so staying here post-graduation wouldn’t be that hard. It mainly just depends on job opportunities related to the international economics field. As for a brain-drain, I’ve never really felt that it was a pressing issue for Madison. Sure, a lot of people leave the city post-graduation, but when your university undergraduate population is that of a decent sized city (more than 30,000), and when there are so many out-of-state students, you can’t expect all of them to stay after they graduate. In keeping students here, I could maybe see recent graduates wanting more things to do around the downtown area that don’t have to do with drinking or partying, but that’s more of a city issue rather than a university one. It would also help if there were more housing opportunities in the area that are oriented toward non-college students."

Izzy Boudnik, Junior
"
Up until recently, my post-grad plans included running as far away from the Midwest as I could, as fast as I could. But I’ve started looking at Madison in a different light - and I’ve realized that this is a community that shares many of my values and also has a lot of potential for growth. It has grown on me. Coercing students to stay in a particular place just because that’s where they attended college isn’t the right view. I think recent grads should go where their education and their particular gifts will do the most good, in Wisconsin or not. However, to keep students in the area, the state could invest in high speed rail — seriously! I think so many people at UW, especially in-state students, would have a more positive view of the state if they didn’t feel stuck here. Transportation options would decrease the anxiety that once you’re here, the only way out is an expensive plane ticket."

Meg Groeller, Junior
“I came to Madison from out of state and have never really planned on staying here after I graduate. I grew up around Chicago and will probably head back there or to the east coast around New York or D.C.. I love Madison as a city but it’s too small for me and because I don’t plan on going into a career in education I don’t really want to live in a college environment for the rest of my life. I understand the concern of a “brain drain” in Wisconsin and I do think it is important for some recent grads to stay however there are also students from other Universities that should also be advertised to come to Madison in order to prevent a “brain drain.”

Cassie Doubek, Senior
"Following my summer internship, I was offered and accepted a full-time position in Louisville, KY, so at least for the immediate future I am not planning on staying in Madison following graduation. As someone who is native to Wisconsin, it was especially important to me to experience living outside of the state at least for a period of time to gain a newfound sense of independence and success away from the place I had grown up in. Traveling, meeting new people, and exploring a new city away from home are all top priorities I have for myself post-grad. However, I am thinking I will eventually return to the Midwest eventually when I want to settle down more permanently and be closer to family. I would argue that it is important for students to experience life outside of Madison to broaden their horizons -- Madison itself is full of businesses and events that will continue to draw a talented group of individuals to further contribute to its culture and success."

Mulu Belete, Junior
“I’ve lived in Wisconsin my entire life so the itch to travel far after graduation is stronger now than ever. I plan to spend my twenties post undergrad soaking up as much real world experience as I can in places as far from Wisconsin that I can find. I have LOVED my experience in Wisconsin so far, particularly at UW-Madison, but I think I need to see more of the world before I find somewhere to settle down. Although that place could very well be right back here in Wisconsin, I want to make sure I am making an educated choice and not just one that feels comfortable.” 

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