Nationally, Iowa is in the top five states in terms of importing college students, and ranks No. 1 in the Midwest for the category, according to statistics included in the Generation Iowa Commission's December 2008 status report. After graduation, however, Iowa's loss of educated people is the nation's fourth worst, behind Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
The Generation Iowa Commission cites several examples for this mass exodus, including slower economic growth, productivity and innovation, as well as increased poverty rates. In short, Iowa graduates are unable to find high-paying positions in their field of study after graduation.
Christian Fong, Vice-Chair of the Generation Iowa Commission, was invited as the keynote speaker at the Boone Chamber of Commerce's 100th anniversary dinner earlier this month, and despite the problems the state has with brain drain, Fong was very optimistic about Boone's future and the town's willingness to combat the problem.
"I was impressed with how many people would come on a weekday evening, focused just on this general topic of how Boone can become a better place in their next 100 years," Fong said. "What I saw was Boone's chamber advancing to their next century, and Boone as a community advancing into the next century. As one participant there said to me, 'What we have to do is to move from the 1950s, where we stalled, into the 21st century.'"
Statistically, the state, as well as Boone, is faced with some troubling statistics.
According to the presentation, 62 percent of Iowa's high school graduates go to college. Thirty- three percent of what Fong referred to as "Next Generation" Iowans will get a bachelor's degree. Twenty-four percent of workforce-aged Iowans already have a degree. With such a wealth of college-educated individuals in the state, however, only 12.2 percent of jobs in the state require a bachelor's degree or higher.
Fong also shared information comparing Iowa's migration and wage gap compared to the national average, split up by education. Between 1995 and 2000, Iowa saw a migration of 7,302 individuals with less than a high school education come into the state, enticed by wages that are $3,262 higher than the country average. For those with a high school education, the state saw a 2,534 person jump in that five-year time frame, enticed by a wage premium of $611. For individuals with an associates degree, however, the state saw a drop of 28 individuals with wages $4,077 below the country's average. For individuals with a four-year degree, Iowa had 18,362 leave the state, as a result of a $9,302 wage gap.
While some may argue that cost-of-living makes up for the wage gap, statistics in the Generation Iowa Commission's status report say otherwise. The report notes that after adjusting for cost-of-living, Iowa pay still ranks second to last in the Midwest, followed only by South Dakota. Additionally, education costs are not included in cost-of-living, which adds to the debt. Iowa graduates carry the sixth-highest student loan rate in the country, with an average of $24,990 at graduation. The repayment of large student loans creates a long-term burden that nearly offsets all other cost-of-living advantages.
Currently, Iowa's workforce is peaking in size. In 10 years, however, Iowa's workforce will lose, on average, about 60,000 people every five years as older Iowans retire. This is equivalent to losing a large company like Principal Financial every year, Fong said.
With a four percent net loss of next generation Iowans each year from 2000-2007, Iowa is cost 10 percent of its economy.
"Brain drain can cripple a town's ability to see past what's always been," Fong said. "It takes young people to not realize that something wasn't impossible before."
From a local standpoint, Fong acknowledged that, like the rest of the state, Boone has some difficult problems it is encountering.
"There's a few challenges that Boone faces," he said. "One is self perception - its self perception that it can stand alone as an independent. The days of small Iowa towns standing alone is a model that's gone, and that's going to be a challenge. The second challenge is economic development - it's clearly different between rural, or small towns, and large urban centers, and yet the state still has a one-size-fits-all economic development model. Boone has to acknowledge that it can't follow Des Moines' lead. Boone has an opportunity to recognize that its economic development is not going to look like what Des Moines says it will be, and as a result to really be a leader in how small town economic development works."
Despite the challenges that Boone faces, however, following Fong's presentation, the group discussed different approaches to take and the position that the city is in to facilitate change. Geographically, being located a short distance from Iowa State University, much of the discussion focused on ways to attract recent graduates from Ames, promote young people from within, and differentiate Boone from Ames while eliminating the "us vs. them" mentality between the two communities.
According to Fong, Boone is already beginning to move in the right direction in combating the brain drain problem. He focused on three things that he said Boone was starting to do well.
The first item he noted was Boone's focus on promoting young people.
"There are people that are starting to focus on promoting young people from within," Fong said. "They're going to find the best, confident team-oriented young people to provide leadership within the community, and they're doing it in a public enough way that it's going to change the perception of how both Booneites and the rest of the state, how it perceives Boone. Frankly, all across the state and in Boone, young people are doing tasks that the last generation called impossible."
The second item noted was Boone's relationships with its neighbor, Ames.
"Boone is beginning to grapple with its love/hate relationship with Ames, and I think in a really healthy way, the discussion was really about regionalism," Fong said. "We're either going to hang together or hang separately, and that's true from an economic point of view, and Boone is beginning to see regionalism very well. It's embracing its proximity to Ames, not just as a bedroom community that loses its identity, but as truly a part of that economic engine. We may just find that the old fashioned 'love thy neighbor' mandate not only works well at church, it works at economic development, as well."
Lastly, Fong noted that Boone is working to find a way to set itself apart from other towns in the area.
"The third thing that Boone is doing well is beginning to differentiate, and civic leaders are finding what Boone does really well makes it stand out," he said. "Some of the brainstorming that was happening was, is it a place to play? Is it a manufacturing hub to parallel with Iowa State's ideas? And this will take some time to define, but by specializing, Boone can dominate its region and it can even dominate within the state...at something. It's going to be very localized, and that's going to be an ongoing discussion for Boone's leaders to decide how do we differentiate within our region and within the state so we can dominate at something, and as a result, attract the best and grow."
With brain drain becoming an increasing problem at both a state and local level, community leaders are looking for more ways to improve.
"If you look at the number of professionals that are four year degree people that are graduating in the state of Iowa, and only 12 percent of the jobs require a four year degree, I think that statistic alone tells you that there's got to be some more high-tech jobs or more professional jobs that require a four year degree," Boone Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Richard Baker said. "Obviously, there's a huge workforce here. The workers are here, it's a matter of just getting businesses established. You would hope that those are good paying salaries to help drive the rest of your retail and service economy by having those jobs here. I look at that, I guess, and say that there's an opportunity there for us to go out and attract those white collar professional types of jobs."
Another way of battling brain drain noted by both Fong and Baker is the creation of a young professionals organization, a group that Boone recently established. The Boone Young Professionals Group meets on the first Friday of each month at various locations in town to bring together people from a variety of different career fields to create business contacts and share business ideas and strategies in a social setting. Fong said that across the state, such young professional groups are playing a major role in combating brain drain.
"Young professional groups can lead the way to attract, retain and advance fresh ideas and the young people that bring them," he said. "So a next generation group should be focused on civic activities, civic influence...in a positive way. Not taking over, but respecting the traditions, respecting what's there, and growing into the future."
Fong said that by incorporating young people into community government and into businesses in the community, towns will continue to improve with fresh ideas and a tenacity to conquer problems that have plagued areas for long periods of time.
"I'm reminded of the analogy of a stonecutter," he said. "It takes 100 blows on that chisel, and the first 99 times it seems like nothing's happening. It's that last strike that, all of a sudden, the stone splits in half. Problems are like that, and every generation will attack a problem and eventually grow weary of it. Brain drain eventually prevents the 100th blow from happening and causing a problem to get solved that's been plaguing the town. Whatever the problem is that people focus on, eventually they get tired of it. It takes the next generation of leaders coming and saying, 'You can hand that baton to me. I'll keep running with this. I won't give up,' and eventually it gets solved. Brain drain breaks the cycle and cripples the community's ability to do that."
Reach editor Greg Eckstrom at firstname.lastname@example.org.