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Columns

Freitag ’14: The brain drain

By
Opinions Columnist

One of the essentials of a strong economy is a supply of highly educated workers. With excellent universities like the University of Rhode Island, Bryant University, Providence College and Brown, Rhode Island attracts a large number of out-of-state students. But the state’s inability to retain students after graduation, when they often take jobs back home or in cities like New York or Washington, D.C., represents a significant economic cost to the Ocean State.

This sizeable departure of skilled individuals, motivated by more promising opportunities elsewhere, has caused an economic brain drain — a significant human capital flight.

From a student’s perspective, the state’s weak economy — with an unemployment rate of 8.9 percent compared to the national average of 7.6 percent — is a motivating factor in choosing to leave after graduation. Furthermore, from the perspective of business, the flight of potential skilled-workers is a significant opportunity lost and a weight on a struggling economy.

Encouraging students to stay in Rhode Island after graduation has long been an issue for policymakers. But it will take a real commitment to developing new enterprises and providing a business-friendly environment in order to attract and maintain talent.

Recently, Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 has introduced legislation aimed at reducing the state’s corporate tax rate. Critics argue this will lead to cutting programs that support and subsidize development in economically weak areas. Politicians often discuss the state corporate income tax rate since Rhode Island has among the highest in the U.S. Some economists have argued reducing the corporate tax rate will help improve Rhode Island’s regional competitiveness by increasing business friendliness. But with high levels of unemployment already, and a consequently weak tax base, a reduction of revenue for the state would result in numerous spending cuts, including to many essential programs.

Instead of focusing on budgetary issues, which produce much debate and little progress, the state government should instead focus on how to maintain the human capital that is already in the state.

Encouraging students to get involved in start-ups and create businesses is a practical approach to creating jobs and producing growth. The successful model followed by Cambridge, Mass. — now one of the entrepreneurial centers of the world — should be a template for Rhode Island cities. The government needs to establish incentives and resources for businesses to grow in order to make use of the talent available in Rhode Island.

Recent projects such the Hatch Entrepreneurial Center — a shared workspace for entrepreneurs, founded by Dan Murphy ’01 — encourage students to get off campus and engage with the Providence business community. By empowering entrepreneurs through increased collaboration, projects like Hatch, which is located in downtown Providence, help show students the numerous opportunities available here in Rhode Island.

“I think it’s important that we break the vicious cycle of talented young students who graduate from our fine universities and leave because they can’t find a job,” State Rep. Chris Blazejewski, D-Providence, told radio station WPRO.

The legislation introduced last spring by Blazejewski and State Sen. Ryan Pearson, D-Cumberland, Lincoln, has helped establish incentives for college graduates to stay in Rhode Island. If passed, the bill would help students pay off student debt, while also providing opportunities for future tax credits.

For many of us at Brown and at other colleges across the state, Rhode Island is a place we call home for only four years. But with increasing opportunities and an improving economy, Rhode Island could present reasons to stay long after graduation.

Situated between Boston and New York, with access to resources like the Narragansett Bay, it should come as no surprise that Rhode Island was once one of the major economic centers in the United States. With a growing commitment from policymakers and continued support from industry, students can be the key to growing the Rhode Island economy through innovation. Ending the brain drain may well be the solution to Rhode Island’s struggling economy.

Scott Freitag ’14 specializes in current economic issues. He can be reached at scott_freitag@brown.edu.

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