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Globe, WBUR fail to fully examine Future Boston Alliance’s claim of “brain drain”

Posted by Mark Leccese  June 11, 2012 09:12 AM

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There is “no shortage of media buzz surrounding the Future Boston Alliance and its mission to change what it sees as the city’s stodgy reputation,” the Globe wrote in a June 7 story.

The headline on the piece tells the story: Can they make over Boston? A group of activists and entrepreneurs are determined to make the city more appealing for young professionals. And they’re prepared to step on some toes in the process.

I have no doubt the Future Boston Alliance has good intentions and sincerely wants to improve life in the Boston area for young professionals. In addition, I am not the guy to ask how that could be done — when I was last a young professional, Tyler Seguin was in diapers, and my night-life generally involves watching the news, reading with a ballgame on, and heading up to bed by 11.

It is the coverage of the Future Boston Alliance I find troublesome. A week before the Globe story, WBUR’s “RadioBoston” aired a 22-minute segment about the Future Boston Alliance and its complaints. This is how the segment began:

About 40 percent of college graduates leave the Boston region a year after they finish school. That’s according to research conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. In contrast, fewer than 20 percent of recent college graduates leave California. Brain drain represents a real challenge here.

These are trend stories about a trend the data say doesn't exist. The folks running the Future Boston Alliance are smart, articulate and media savvy, but the Globe and WBUR should have done more reporting on the data that exists — about which more shortly — to present fuller representations of whether the region is suffering from a “brain drain” and whether the Boston area is “appealing for young professionals.”

Both the Globe and WBUR did contact Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s office for comment, and both news outlets featured the mayor’s office’s refutation of the Future Boston Alliance’s claim in their stories.

In the Globe story, Dot Joyce, Mayor Menino’s spokeswoman, made these points:

  • Boston is gaining, not losing, young professionals and the 2010 U.S. Census data show that Boston has the highest population of 20- to 34-year-olds of any of the nation’s biggest cities.

  • The 20- to 34-year-old population of Boston increased 11 percent from 2000 to 2010.

  • One of the complaints of the Future Boston Alliance is the city’s closing times for bars and restaurants and other late-night establishments; Joyce points out that closing times are the same in San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, and Denver.

In the Globe story, Joyce gets four paragraphs in a 32-paragraph story. In the WBUR segment, she gets one minute of the 22 minutes the station devoted to its story. Neither the Globe nor WBUR quotes any other sources in their stories who might provide data about the retention of recent college graduates in the Boston area and the region.

I could not find a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston report that states a much higher percentage of college graduates leave the Boston area a year after they finish school than leave California, as WBUR reported. That doesn’t mean the report does not exist, just that WBUR found it and I did not.

When I heard it, though, it made intuitive sense to me: California is a much bigger state and Massachusetts must have far more college students who come from out-of-state for education than California does.

I checked the numbers at the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau and this is what I found: California has 200 colleges that grant bachelor’s degrees and a population of 37 million. That’s one four-year college for every 1,850,000 residents. Massachusetts has 88 colleges that grant bachelor’s degrees and a population of 6.5 million — one four-year college for every 74,000 residents.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s New England Public Policy Center addressed this in a 2009 report titled “Retention of Recent College Gradates in New England.”

Typical migration rates for New England often show net out-migration among recent college graduates — meaning that more individuals appear to be leaving than entering the region. However, such rates reflect only moves made upon graduation from region of institution to region of adult residence, failing to capture the earlier in-migration of students to attend college.

Why is that important? New England attracts a relatively high share of students from outside the region, with more students arriving to attend college than leaving to attend college elsewhere. Even though the region holds onto only a fraction of those incoming students after they graduate, they more than offset the number of graduates who do leave, so the region comes out ahead for a given class.

The same group, in its 2007 report “Is New England Experiencing a brain drain?,” decided the answer is “no.”

While it is true that fewer people between 25 and 39 live in New England today than at any time during the past 15 years, the number of those in the specific category of young professionals has not declined, thanks to steady increases in the share of young people who complete college. Additionally, while this decline in young people is often attributed to out-migration, it is due, at least in part, to a large number of individuals who are aging out of the cohort, rather than leaving the region.

In short, a careful analysis of the data indicates that reports of a major “brain drain” from the region are overstated.

“The brain drain of recent college graduates and thirtysomethings leaving Boston” is one of the major problems cited by the Future Boston Alliance in its video mission statement. It does not appear to be true, but the Globe and WBUR both report the claim.

There’s more data. A November 2011 analysis of 2010 Census data by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (“Demographic and Socio-Economic Trends in Boston”) reports 44.3 percent of Boston’s adult population has at least a bachelor’s degree, ranking Boston it fourth amongst the 25 largest cities in the U.S.

Still, there are some worrisome data. The Boston Fed’s 2009 report looks at college graduate retention in the region by field and finds New England lags the rest of the country in retaining college graduates in some fields while outpacing the nation in retaining college graduates in others.

New England ranks near the bottom in retaining graduates in most fields. However, health care is an exception: more than 90 percent of this field’s graduates remain in New England. Graduates in some other fields also had retention rates above the country’s overall average. ...

For example, nearly 77 percent of education majors and 73 percent of business majors stayed in the region after graduation — likely reflecting the strength of the region’s academic and professional services sectors. In contrast, only 64 percent of science/technology/engineering/and mathematics majors remained in New England after graduating. Although this is certainly a concern, it is perhaps not surprising, as these individuals are in high demand throughout the country.

We all have anecdotes about young professionals — friends or coworkers — who found Boston not the place they wanted to live and work, for whatever reasons, and moved on. But anecdotes are not data, and the Globe and WBUR could have done a better job balancing their stories by seeking out more data.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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