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Could Better Tracking Of Students Help Combat Brain Drain? One Indiana Mayor Thinks So

Jeremy Wilburn

“Brain Drain” is the phenomenon where people choose to leave the area where they grew up and went to school to pursue employment and set down roots elsewhere.

Indiana government, business and education leaders have long worked to develop ways to combat this exodus of talent from the state.

Frankfort Mayor Chris McBarnes says in order for his town to grow and thrive economically, it has to attract more young people to live and work there.

He wants community, business, and government leaders to team with local school corporations to keep track of high school students who would be good prospects to bring back to the city once they have a college degree.

“So after they graduate, and after they leave Frankfort, we need to check in with them," says McBarnes. "We need to see where they’re at in their degree process. We need to see what they majored in. We need to find out what kind of jobs they’re looking for.”

McBarnes says once such a database is established, he’d work with the Chamber of Commerce and local business leaders to match students with available jobs.

“To say ‘Ok, Maggie just finished up at Purdue University. She has a human resources degree and she’s looking at going to Indianapolis. But I know as a community leader that NTK is looking for a person like this.’" says McBarnes. "Then we as community leaders need to do a better job of connecting Maggie with those job opportunities in the city.”

This sort of partnership has been tried elsewhere. The small town of Newport, Arkansas – about half the size of Frankfort -- also faces the challenge of convincing students who leave the area for college to come back after graduation to live, work, and raise families. Jon Chadwell leads Newport’s Economic Development Commission, which is working with students from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service to develop a database of current and former students from area schools. Chadwell says the database will include the individual’s addresses, fields of study, and chosen careers.

“If we have a company that has maybe a job with a little higher skill level and a little higher wage, then we can email the people in the database—and it will be searchable—we can email the people in the database whose qualifications or education mirrors what the job requires and see if we can get them to apply,” says Chadwell.

He says local industry leaders are supportive of the idea because they often have positions open but have a difficult time finding people with the skill set needed to fill those jobs.

Chadwell sees other potential economic benefits, too.

“Maybe we’re competing for a government project and we want to have folks give letters of support to put in our packet," he says. "We only have one state senator and one representative that represents us here, but alumni from our community probably have half of the Senate and the House of Representatives. So if they all sent a letter to theirs asking that they support our senator and representative in whatever we’re trying to do, then that would be a big benefit.”

Purdue Dean of Admissions Pam Horne says her office doesn’t send much information back to high schools. It’s currently limited to a status report sent out after the admissions process wraps up each year about applicants from each school.

“That tells them whether or not the student was admitted, were they denied, and for those who have committed to Purdue we tell them that as well and we request final transcripts," says Horne. "So the high schools have a pretty good idea usually, among Indiana schools about a 99% idea, of their recent graduates as to who’s attending in the fall.”

She says a school corporation or local government official can request a list of students from their area who are attending Purdue from the Registrar’s Office.  But she says the information is limited to what’s called “directory information” such as major and hometown.

“We couldn’t release GPAs, for example," says Horne. "But whether or not someone received a degree, yeah, that’s directory.”

Horne says local communities could probably mine the data available to them for their benefit.

But she says that would require an active effort on their part and a fundamental change in the way students are currently tracked.

Clinton Prairie School Corporation Superintendent Chris Sampson says an annual survey of recent graduates is the only tracking that goes on right now, and it relies on people responding and subsequently updating their information. However, Sampson doesn’t think it would be much trouble to routinely gather the information Mayor McBarnes wants.

“If we had more of a purpose behind like what I think Chris is trying to accomplish, I think that’s easily taken care of," he says. "We can track those kids a little more diligently.”

But Sampson says better tracking of students would have to be one part of a larger effort to attract people to the area.

“It’s a multi-faceted problem, one that we can all benefit from it getting better," says Sampson. "But I think we can solve it by all working together.”

Mayor McBarnes says the idea isn’t fully formed yet – but that’s not his only concern. He says he’ll focus his second term on “quality of life” issues. How Frankfort reinvents itself for young people may have as much bearing on whether they want to come back as whether there’s a job waiting for them.  

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