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September 27, 2001

Survey uncovers why grads leave area

Asurvey of recent graduates from the city's three largest universities shows that the region has made significant strides in retaining its graduates, comparing 1994 grads to 1999 grads.

Of the 1999 college graduates interviewed who are currently employed, 52 percent work in the Pittsburgh area, compared with 40 percent of the 1994 graduates. Among those who originally came to the region for their education from out-of-state, one third of the 1999 graduates stayed in the region compared to 20 percent of 1994 non-native-Pittsburgh graduates, according to the survey.

"As for the 'not-so-good' news, low salaries proved to be a key reason why so many of our graduates leave the Pittsburgh region," said Susan B. Hansen, professor of political science and the project's principal investigator. "Although the cost of living may be higher in other areas of the country, recent graduates are still attracted to positions with higher starting salaries. Salary differences are even larger for women, minorities and international students, and concern with finding good jobs for two-career couples also convinced people to move elsewhere."

The survey confirms that the region, defined as the six counties in southwest Pennsylvania — Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Westmoreland and Washington — is suffering from a "brain drain": new members of the work force getting their education here but seeking and gaining employment elsewhere.

"We already know from other data about the region's low rate of population growth and that a disproportionate number of recent college graduates are leaving the region for jobs," Hansen said. "But while aggregate data like this and like the census tell us how many, they don't tell us who are leaving or why they are leaving."

The survey attempts to give an overview of why people chose Pittsburgh (or grew up here and stayed) for their education, what kinds of jobs and lifestyles they want and how they made their decisions about where to work and live, Hansen said. The survey also offers some policy recommendations for retaining the region's graduates.

Conducted by Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) with funding from the Heinz Endowments and the R.K. Mellon Foundation, the Career and Location Decisions Project includes data from 2,131 interviews with 1994 and 1999 graduates from Pitt, Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon.

The interviews were conducted by telephone and e-mail in early 2001. Included in the survey were 603 Pitt grads (a 15.3 response rate from 3,940 contacted), which represents 28.3 percent of the total interviewees (2,131). The overall response rate from the three universities was 20 percent of the original sample.

Hansen and GSPIA Dean Carolyn Ban announced the findings at a news conference Sept. 19.

The survey showed that students are attracted to Pittsburgh universities first because of the quality of academic programs, but that they also cited the region's cultural events, the urban atmosphere and the availability of economic opportunities as factors in their decisions to attend school here.

But the region's cultural amenities are less a factor when it comes to job searching as compared with higher starting salaries in other parts of the country.

Women, in particular, stand to earn much more by leaving Pittsburgh than those who stay following graduation, regardless of the field or degree, Hansen said. "Women who left the area had a 57 percent better chance to earn over $50,000 than women who stayed. Many women who left said they did want to return but often were deterred by economic hardship.

"Very few African Americans, Asians and foreign nationals want to return once they've left the region, except those African Americans who grew up in the region; among those who didn't grow up here almost all wanted to leave," she said.

In categorizing currently employed 821 "stayers" and 969 "leavers," (excluding unemployed, homemakers, those continuing in school, retired, or disabled) the report drew the following profiles:

The 821 "stayers" tend to be female, married, with children, Duquesne graduates, white, American citizens and holders of M.S. or M.B.A. degrees.

"Leavers" tend to be male, CMU grads, single, minorities, foreign nationals and holders of B.S. degrees.

Those who graduated in 1999 were more likely to remain in this area (37 percent) than 1994 graduates (31 percent).

Although stayers tend to earn less, they were considerably more likely to own homes (62.7 percent compared to 50.2 percent).

According to the report, a multivariate analysis of stayers versus leavers showed that graduation from a high school in the Pittsburgh area was the strongest single factor predicting staying in Pittsburgh. Holding a graduate degree, access to continuing education, closeness to family and low housing costs also were factors.

Concern with starting salaries was a major factor among those who decided to leave.

The report makes eight general policy recommendations to help combat the region's brain drain:

* Bring more people to Pittsburgh for their college education.

* Use affordable housing and low cost of living as a recruitment strategy.

* Promote the availability of continuing education opportunities, both formal and informal.

* Make salaries and benefits in the region more competitive with national norms.

* Improve the quality and visibility of amenities that appeal to young professionals.

* Improve university career counseling and internship availability.

* Address the concerns of women and two-career couples.

* Pay more attention to minority concerns and cultural diversity issues.

"There are a number of ways in which this region can begin to recruit and retain more college students who stay after graduation," said GSPIA Dean Ban. "The important thing to remember is that a 'one-size-fits-all' approach will not work. We need to tailor recruitment strategies to the needs and interests of diverse groups."

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 3

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