Illinois enjoys 'brain gain'
Contrary to ‘brain drain’ reports, throughout the 2000s the state has actually attracted top talent
By Ted Cox
Reports of “brain drain” in Illinois are greatly exaggerated, according to a new congressional study.
The study, “Losing Our Minds: Brain Drain Across the United States,” from the Joint Economic Committee in Congress, finds that Illinois is outpacing other “Rust Belt” states in attracting top student talent, especially in the 2000s and over the last decade.
The national study goes back to the 1940 U.S. Census to take a decade-by-decade snapshot of where the top third of students ended up in their 30s: whether they remained in state or left the state. Since 2000, Illinois has suffered a deficit, but far less than those suffered by neighboring and similar states Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.
The study finds that Illinois was much more likely to lose top talent in the 1900s, but has largely retained it and attracted it since 2000.
The study arrives at a “gross brain drain” by comparing the percentage of thirtysomethings who had been in the top third of students and left the state to those who remained in state. For 2017, all states saw more who left than stayed — reflecting a certain restlessness in the population — but the 8.3 difference in percentages in Illinois compared favorably to New York (7.9) and Texas (8.8), while lagging behind California (2.3), which ranked second in lowest “brain drain” behind only Wyoming (a 0.1 percent difference). Neighboring and similar states Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylania all registered differences of more than 15 percent by comparison.
As the study put it: “Americans are a highly mobile people. Roughly a quarter to a third of adults in the United States have moved within the previous five years. While moving rates have declined in the U.S. over the last few decades, they are still higher than in nearly every other country in the world.”
The study also determined a “net'“ figure comparing the percentage of top students who left the state by their 30s against those in their 30s who moved into the state, and in 2017 Illinois proved to be one of the top states, with a 10.4 percentage point difference favoring “entrants.” That trailed only California, Massachusetts, and New York. Meanwhile, every Midwestern state but Minneapolis saw declines, with many of those states suffering double-digit losses by percentage points.
The study credited “dynamic states with major metropolitan areas” as being the top attractions for the top third of students. It stated: “Our report provides evidence that highly educated adults flowing to dynamic states with major metropolitan areas are, to a significant extent, leaving behind more rural and post-industrial states.”
The study used census data going up through 2000, augmenting that with “the 2010 and 2017 American Community Surveys to measure brain drain in each state.”
The same pattern, of Illinois enjoying less “brain drain” than its neighbors, while being the only one to enjoy a “net” gain, applies for both 2010 and 2000. So, while Illinois may be losing population overall, and that’s been felt across the state, it’s doing a better job than most states and much better than its Midwest neighbors at retaining and attracting top talent.
“Metropolitan areas that in earlier decades had higher percentages of college-educated men have seen greater increases in the ranks of those men compared with areas that began with a smaller percentage,” the study determined. “The clustering of the highly educated into major metropolitan areas is part of what some researchers argue is a larger geographical division by self-selection that has been taking place in the United States.”
The study suggests this could be a source of the political divide, warning: “If we are connecting less with communities and people who are different than us, we could be more likely to see adversaries among those in whom we might otherwise find a neighbor.”
Of course, Illinois has seen within the state that many top students leave small towns to move to Chicago or other major cities, but that’s another intrastate study for another time.