Coming soon: Fordham probes the brain drain

When 30 Ohio college students were interviewed in November at three of the state's top universities, they were asked to play what researcher Steve Farkas calls the "finish the sentence game."

Farkas, president of the New York-based FDR public opinion research company (see here), asked students to complete the phrase, "Ohio is...." The most common answer was "Ohio is...home." In short, young Ohio natives usually love their state but they are too often ready to leave as soon as they clutch their degrees. They're happy to have grown up here and just as happy to leave for adventures, jobs, or advanced degrees as soon as they're done with college. This isn't surprising. The problem for the state, however, is how to keep more of these bright, educated Ohioans right here.

Leaders from Gov. Ted Strickland on down are worried. So is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The departure of so many capable, articulate citizens already hurts and will be devastating as Ohio attempts to restructure and reinvigorate the state's K-16 education system and, beyond that, to retool the economy. Farkas is helping to illuminate this issue for Fordham. The Institute has contracted with him to conduct an in-depth survey of 800 sophomores, juniors, and seniors currently attending Ohio's more prestigious colleges to learn just what they think about their state. The November focus groups of students-all with grade point averages of 3.5 and above-were designed to help construct questions for a larger survey in February. Farkas is a seasoned and well-respected researcher. In education, alone, he has conducted more than 150 focus groups with students, parents, teachers, and administrators. He is an ace at teasing out real attitudes and opinions.

In a sense, Farkas will put a face to what Ohio leaders already know. A 2003 Ohio Board of Regents study indicated that only 61 percent of those earning a bachelor's degree in engineering at an Ohio university worked in-state following graduation. Even fewer chemistry and physics majors, 46 percent, stayed here. More recent surveys only reinforce the fear that the flight of too many of our brightest young people is systemic, which makes overcoming it that much more difficult. Tackling this challenge, for example, is a big part of what the state's billion-dollar Third Frontier science and technology investment program is all about (see here). Obviously, Ohio-trained scientists and engineers can't remain in the state if there are few jobs for scientists and engineers.

Ohio doesn't seem to win over many out-of-staters either. Few students fall in love with our state. There was a sense of missed opportunity: too many had never left the confines of their colleges and never came to appreciate their neighborhoods, much less the state they had moved to. "They were aliens that never assimilated," Farkas told us. Often they simply couldn't imagine working here. "We can visualize the jobs but we can't feel them-we don't know what it's really like," one told Farkas.

Not only did the focus-group students plan to leave, they also mostly dismissed Ohio's leaders as half-baked and uninspiring. As one kid in Cleveland told him, "It's never the best, they always half-ass it." While college students may feel the same about political leadership no matter where they live, Ohioans, they felt, are not proud of themselves.

So, Ohio needs to figure out how to entice a second look, hopefully through a job or other opportunity like a paid internship or tuition forgiveness in exchange for working here. Regarding jobs, the students showed a surprising sense of maturity when they said they want flexibility, responsibility, and diversity where they work as well as definable, achievable goals. They don't care as much about job security. They would rather manage their own money than have a pension and have more money up front. They want to be stimulated, fly from place to place, solve problems, and be stars.

Maybe a stint in something like Teach for America (see here), which targets the best and brightest college students for recruitment, would help. Unfortunately, to experience this grads have to leave Ohio. There is no Teach for America program in the Buckeye State. For kids without a clearly defined path (which is most) or who wouldn't mind taking a break before going to graduate school, Teach for America might be very attractive. As far as reforming Ohio education, the challenge is getting more of these top-flight students to consider a career in teaching, which, in the focus groups, meant an "honorable, challenging, and low-paying" job.

What Fordham's survey will deliver is a detailed look at whether grads are planning to leave or stay and, if they're planning to leave, what might entice them to remain, at least for a little while. Does Ohio represent opportunity and a good place to advance personally and professionally? What's needed to make them feel like investing their futures here? The study also will probe college students' perceptions of the K-12 education field. What could attract them to teaching? And do they know there are other less conventional job opportunities in education such as starting a charter school or working for a non-profit educational organization?

Fordham will have the answers in May.

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