Recent college graduates in Wisconsin are choosing to live elsewhere post-graduation, a trend that isn’t new. Wisconsin has been among the top ten states with a negative retention rate with their new college graduates from 1980 to the most recent study in 2017. Illinois and Minnesota were the top two choices of location among college graduates from Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s geographic position between Illinois and Minnesota surely doesn't help it retain its young talent. Situated between the busier metropolitan regions of Chicago and the Twin Cities, it’s hard for the state to compete with the opportunities in these metropolitan areas.
“Wisconsin is sort of unique in having two major metro areas in Chicago and the Twin Cities, right near our borders, that are attracting people, especially college graduates, right after finishing school,” senior researcher at the Wisconsin Policy Forum Joe Peterangelo said.
Big cities are attractive to young people, a trait Wisconsin just can’t compete with. Illinois and Minnesota were the only states located in the midwest in the report to experience brain gain. Outside the Midwest, California, Texas and Florida reported the highest amount of retention among their new graduates.
“Both Illinois and Minnesota, we found, have a net positive attraction of higher educated residents,” Peterangelo said. “Wisconsin is one of the states that's contributing to their benefit.”
For some, it’s difficult to separate living in Madison – or Wisconsin, even – from their college experience. 2021 UW-Madison graduate Ellie Spadaccini looked for jobs across the midwest before settling back home in Minnesota.
“That summer I spent in Madison [after graduation], I struggled to see myself staying there alone for longer,” Spadaccini said. “I had friends that were also graduating and moving away. So it was harder for me to see myself living alone in a city that I had just spent four years and with people, I think it would have made it feel a lot smaller [without friends].”
On a much grander scale, weather is a growing factor in people’s decisions to move elsewhere. In 2021, U.S. cities in the Sun Belt were the most moved to. Phoenix sat at the top with almost 200 new residents a day moving to the area.
“When you look nationally at this issue, [recent college graduates] are tending to move to warm weather states, the states that are growing are states like Texas, Arizona,” Peterangelo said. “Warm weather states are drawing people in, and the Midwest and Northeast are losing some of their population.”
People don’t necessarily want to leave Wisconsin, but a lack of good employment opportunities – as compared to these larger metropolitan areas – makes it difficult to find reasons to stay.
“If I had gotten a good job offer, I would have stayed,'' Spadaccini said. “I loved Madison and I loved the years I spent there. But I don't know, a small part of me was like that's college me and now I have to be like an adult.”
Michigan native Rebecca Darmetko was open to staying in Madison too. Darmetko applied to nearly 100 jobs in the education industry — 50 of which she said were in Wisconsin — following her graduation from UW-Madison in December 2021.
“I had some experience [during college] of reaching out to schools and talking to teachers and the kind of opportunities that I thought I had. And none of them ended up working out,” Darmetko said. “Because I already made that move to a new state and had that time where I was by myself and had to figure things out. That was no barrier for me leaving and going anywhere after that, so I landed in Nashville.”
Highly educated people taking their talents elsewhere creates a wider gap in the so-called knowledge economy. Not only can brain drain have economic consequences but political and social too.
“By increasing social segregation, it limits opportunities for disparate groups to connect. And by siphoning a source of economic innovation from emptying communities, brain drain can also lead to crumbling institutions of civil society,” noted a report from the Social Capitol Project. “As those natives who have more resources leave, those left behind may struggle to support churches, police athletic leagues, parent-teacher associations and local businesses.”
Grace Martin, who graduated from UW-Madison in 2022, recently moved back to Madison, although that wasn’t her original plan.
“I did want to leave just because Madison is a pretty small city and there aren’t as many employment opportunities, or opportunities to branch out beyond the university,” Martin said.
Martin later got a job with 350 Wisconsin as a political fellow, which brought her back to the area. She found the political climate of Wisconsin “a big mess” compared to Minnesota. In Wisconsin, Martin found there was “work to be done.”
Solutions to reverse brain drain in Wisconsin are still challenging to see. Its unpredictable and relatively cold weather cannot be controlled, and it's difficult to tell if financial incentives, like tax cuts, work to retain people. Lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic allowed cities to try to put out ideas about how to maintain its population.
“We have seen some states experiment during the pandemic with incentives to attract residents, especially remote workers,” Peterangelo said. “Wisconsin is somewhat more affordable than a lot of other states — that could be something that could be considered. Tulsa, Oklahoma was one [city] that had some success with a program like that.”
Wisconsin’s ability to retain its residents, however, remains strong, according to Peterangelo.
Milwaukee continues to retain its residents. Madison continues to grow, although marginally as compared to Minneapolis’ growth. Still, Madison seems to be more attractive for new residents.
“I was very open to staying in Wisconsin, specifically Madison. I wasn't really interested in going to Milwaukee. I just loved that Madison was small, but still, like a really close community outside of even the university,” Darmetko said.
“I do want to branch out and go to a bigger city,” Martin concluded. “But also Madison has such a lovely community, so many beautiful outdoor spots and just really nice people all around.”