Every year, many of the brightest young Arkansans graduate from high school and decide to leave the state for college. And even if some choose to attend in-state colleges and universities, a healthy percentage end up going elsewhere after they earn their degrees.
“I know people that had to go to Dallas or Atlanta or the big cities to find jobs because that’s where the demand is,” said Luis Medina, a Southern Arkansas University graduate interviewed by NPR this week about his job as a program analyst in Magnolia. He was singled out as an exceptional case: a talented, well-trained professional who both attended college and found a good job in a state that does not usually hold on to its young people.
But what if our state’s retention problem has more to do with cultural and societal pressures than with the quality of our education system and the number of jobs we have to offer? What if the problem was strictly superficial and psychological — that some people feel they are not as successful if they stick around?
It is not too difficult to understand why some young people might feel that way. If a student excels in high school, he or she usually is encouraged to go to college outside of Arkansas. After all, almost any out-of-state school sounds more impressive to friends and neighbors than a state school.
The prestige factor seems to be more important than the quality of education, because there is a negligible difference between what a hard-working student will learn at one institution versus another. If acquiring a body of knowledge is the goal, a degree program at an Arkansas university is likely to have the same requirements as its Ivy League equivalent, because modern accreditation procedures ensure basic uniformity in academic standards.
And for those who think that, all things being equal, schools like Harvard are as valuable for the kind of connections and networking opportunities that ensure great jobs, a look at the evidence may be sobering. According to a Slate.com article titled, “Who Needs Harvard?” one study shows the percentage of top executives who attended Ivy League or other well-known private colleges fell substantially between 1980 and 2001, and they were replaced by graduates of public universities. “[. . .] The authors conclude that the shift has less to do with demographics and more to do with corporate practices,” the article says. “In other words, the bosses aren’t as snowed by polished young Ivy grads as they were in the past.”
But even those who remain in Arkansas for college believe that the definition of success is a job somewhere else. It’s not that there aren’t good opportunities here; as a small state, Arkansas has a disproportionate number of Fortune 500 companies. Furthermore, Northwest Arkansas is one of the fastest-growing areas of the country, with almost a negative unemployment rate and many well-paying corporate jobs. It’s “where the demand is,” as Luis Medina would say.
Instead, young people from other states are moving in to take the jobs that native Arkansans don’t want. For some people who grew up here, it doesn’t matter that Stephens, Inc. does the same work as many of the Wall Street investment firms, or that Alltel, Acxiom, Tyson Foods, UAMS and Wal-Mart are leaders in their fields. Even with equivalent salaries, better chances for advancement, and other benefits, they just won’t be satisfied staying at home.
It’s an admittedly unquantifiable psychological phenomenon, but it’s not uncommon. Iowa, for instance, is hemorrhaging young people to such a large degree that the legislature there is considering a proposal to eliminate the state income tax for residents under age 30. However, people there are discovering that the decision to leave Iowa is not merely economic.
“Even though I know money makes the world go around, there are a lot of other incentives out there,” Nathan Zoromski, a student at Iowa State University, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “By the time we get to this point, we kind of outgrow Iowa. You feel like a big fish in a small pond. Most people I know want to go east or west.”
This desire, to see new places and experience life in the big city, is as old as human civilization. But too many young people adhere to prescribed notions when they make important decisions, blindly choosing schools, jobs, and places to live based on what they think it means to be successful in our society.
Everyone in Arkansas should consider participating in a psychological retention strategy that emphasizes pride of place. Our young people should not be made to think they are selling themselves short by deciding to make their lives here. Because the fact is, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.