Commentary

Oregon should act to slow drain of college talent that is heading out of state

A program in New York shows what is possible in a state program to engage graduates in Oregon careers

October 19, 2021 6:15 am

New legislation proposed by Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio would lower student debt loads and expand the federal Pell grant program for low-income students. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Buried amidst the excitement of our state securing a sixth Congressional district, the 2020 Census data flashed a warning sign for Oregon’s future.

For the first time ever, deaths outnumbered births in the state in 2020, leaving Oregon completely dependent on in-migration for population (and, in turn, economic) growth.

There are many reasons for this shift, from the pandemic and the rise of “deaths of despair” (particularly in rural Oregon), to the sharp decline in birth rate (now at a 30-year low).

Furthermore, as Kevin Frazier recently noted in an essay calling for an “exit survey” of Oregon college students, a 2018 study by the Wall Street Journal showed that upwards of two-thirds of graduates from Oregon’s major research universities (the University of Oregon and Oregon State University) take their degrees and the knowledge and skills behind them to pastures outside Oregon.

The reasons for this phenomenon are myriad. Many graduates came to Oregon from other states and “return home” to put down roots in their communities. Others leave to chase opportunity in “superstar” cities, particularly the handful of metropolises that account for nearly 90% of venture capital funding nationwide.

Still more face a mountain of debt that all but require them to take jobs in higher wage metros.

And sure, others probably think it rains a little too much in the Willamette Valley for their liking.

While we can’t stop the rain (in fact, we’d welcome the precipitation in parched southern Oregon), the state can do more to adopt real incentives to stay, including targeted aid to encourage young people graduating from our state’s institutions of higher learning to put their skills to work building businesses and growing jobs in our communities.

One idea: launch a financial aid program – the Oregon Roots Fund – that would provide loan relief and wage support to graduates who commit to living and working in Oregon for at least five years. Graduates from Oregon institutions would be eligible as well as Oregonians who chose to go out of state for higher education, but return to the state to start their career/launch businesses.

The concept is similar to one that I proposed in New York State back in 2012 (dubbed the “Empire Engineers Initiative”), which eventually became the Excelsior Scholarship. This provided financial aid to eligible individuals who attend public colleges and universities in the Empire State and commit to staying in New York for a certain period after graduation.

While far from a perfect program, Excelsior currently supports about 30,000 students annually, creating a direct incentive for graduates to put their skills to work on behalf of New Yorkers (the concept is similar to one promoted by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, who has long advocated “stapling” a green card on certain in-demand degrees to encourage foreign students to ply their trade in the U.S.).

Oregon should learn from this example, and its shortcomings.

First, the Oregon Roots Fund should be tailored to provide even more relief to individuals who choose to work outside of the Willamette Valley, spurring economic growth in rural areas that have struggled during much of this century. This is a similar model to the federal program that encourages immigrant physicians to practice in medically underserved areas for at least three years.

Second, the Roots Fund should ensure that the lowest income students can benefit, even if they do not carry student debt due to other aid. New York has failed to address this issue, leaving many poor students who received federal Pell grants and state aid out of the program, while benefiting middle-income students.

By structuring the Roots Fund in a similar manner to a refundable tax credit, Oregon can provide incentives for students to stay, even if their tuition costs were covered by Pell, Oregon Opportunity Grants, or other assistance.

Third, the Roots Fund should not simply apply to graduates of public institutions, but should also provide loan support (pegged to tuition at public schools) to graduates of private colleges and universities.

Last but not least, the Roots Fund should be structured as a public-private partnership, allowing funding from not only taxpayers, but also corporations that stand to benefit from a diverse, talented workforce.

With UO welcoming its largest freshman class ever and enrollment at OSU and PSU also bouncing back from pandemic lows, it is incumbent upon our state to make it’s best pitch for keeping these driven, diverse, intelligent, entrepreneurial young people in our state.

We’ve got four years to make the case. Let’s start right now.

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Andrew Kalloch

Andrew Kalloch lives with his spouse and three children in Eugene, where he is a member of the board of the City Club. He works in public policy for Airbnb

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