Columns

Andrea Matthews ’11: Brown’s brain drain

By
Guest Columnist
Monday, April 13, 2009

In a few weeks, about a quarter of our population will process out of the Van Wickle Gates and into the real world. But once they’re in the real world, where exactly will they go? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d put together a list that goes something like: New York, Boston, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, and…that seems to be about it. It seems like every time we think about where we plan to be after graduation, that inevitable big-city list makes its way into our minds.

What happens if a Brown graduate doesn’t make the pilgrimage to the “greatest” of the Great Beyond? Perhaps he or she journeys abroad, piquing the interest of friends and family. But what happens to those who go back to their homes — not the big cities, but smaller, less glitzy towns that perhaps we were told we should be glad to “escape”? For those who come from smaller towns, is Brown a gateway to the Great Beyond, or is it the way we get the tools we need to go home and make a difference? Beyond this, why is it that those who go back to those smaller towns, or stay in Providence, are the subject of quiet judgment?

Perhaps it is a completely rational phenomenon. We spend around fifty thousand dollars per year grooming ourselves to get whatever it is we want: a graduate degree, a job in consulting, a public service position … the list goes on. Chances are that many of us formulated these desires before applying to Brown, knowing that a degree with a well-recognized name would be an asset in competitive post-graduation endeavors. To those students, education is the investment necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) to reap a kind of return that is not available “back home.”

Looking at the Brown graduate’s decision from this vantage point, our reliance on the big-city list makes sense. We invest in ourselves to gain a certain return: high salaries, lofty recognition or both. If those things are more abundant in the high rises of Manhattan, a recent college graduate would be foolish not to go to that land of plenty. But what if we look at it from another perspective?

Our towns, counties and states were also investors in what we can call our personal human capital funds. At least some combination of public education, infrastructure, social welfare benefits and public goods benefited each student at this institution, whether they originate from the United States or abroad. By educating us, keeping us safe or healthy and generally making our lives easier, our home towns (and Providence, RI, for that matter) facilitated investment in our human capital funds as well. Even if one does not believe that government makes a significant contribution to the welfare of its citizens, it is hard to argue that one’s friends, neighbors and overall community did not either. Even if we eliminate the role of government in human capital investment, we can still believe that “it takes a village to raise a child.”

So what does it mean when a plurality of Brown students head for the big city instead of back home? Instead of seeing newly minted, bright and shiny college graduates bring the benefits of their knowledge back to the communities that raised them, less alluring locales are watching their investments in human capital take the first flight to New York City without a look back.

This is not to allege that Brown students should boomerang back to their home towns motivated by some dream-crushing civic duty. There are more compelling reasons to settle outside the big city: lower costs, higher quality of life and less competition in the job market are among the most persuasive.  These reasons can complement the representative Brown student’s aspirations quite nicely.  If he or she seeks a life of comfort, lower prices in smaller cities create an income effect.  If recognition is his or her goal, less competition in smaller cities can give a Brown graduate an opportunity to distinguish him or herself.  For similar reasons, Brown students seeking to “make a difference” may have greater influence in smaller communities.  None of these reasons call specifically for a return to a student’s home town, but they offer compelling justification for setting our sights on a more unique post-graduate destination than the inevitable list of elite coastal cities.

Particularly here, we are products not only of our surroundings, but of our own ambition. Brown gives us the tools we need to explore our interests in our own way, hopefully training us in how to best fashion our own futures. But would it come at too high of a cost to add a fill-in-the blank destination to our big city list, and insert the name of a less glamorous locale there?

Andrea Matthews ’11 hopes her $50,000 investment actually yields a return.