Stop Complaining About “Brain Drain” And Do Something About It.

by Jeremy Cooney

When I first moved back to my hometown of Rochester, I experienced the social isolation faced by many young professionals in upstate New York.

My friends from high school had moved to larger metropolitan cities for higher education and job opportunities. It was hard to meet people under the age of 40 and there were limited social activities available after work hours if you didn’t have a family of your own. I would often see my friends’ parents in the grocery store aisle who would lament how they wish their children would move back home.

Over the last decade a lot has changed—especially in cities like Rochester where there has a been a focus on creating a more vibrant quality of life for young professionals. But upstate selling points of affordable housing and short commute times don’t mean much if you can’t find a good paying job.

According to the Empire Center and U.S. Census Bureau, 42 out of the 50 upstate counties experienced population loss. In fact, the only area of New York State that experienced a net population increase was New York City and its surrounding suburbs. For years economists have warned of an upstate “brain drain,” referring to the challenges of attracting and retaining young talent. But, we have yet to find a solution to reverse the trend.

My “Onward Upstate” program combines student loan debt forgiveness with relocation grants. It would provide an income tax credit for upstate New York resident taxpayers who make eligible education loan payments towards an undergraduate or graduate degree, and who live and work in the upstate region. An additional financial incentive would be given to graduates who are currently employed in NYC or out of state and willing to relocate upstate to work remotely for their employer. These eligible graduates will receive a one-time flat cash incentive to help cover their moving and work-related expenses due to the transition. When implemented, the program would invest previous New York State economic development dollars differently than it currently does—choosing to invest in people versus investing in companies.

According to Forbes, 44.2 million U.S. borrowers, or 70 percent of college students, have student loan debt totaling an estimated $1.5 trillion. Upon graduation, the average student in the Class of 2016 had $37,172 in student loan debt with New York ranking in the top four highest states for total student loan debt outstanding among resident borrowers. We have reached the point of crisis.

For most individuals, living in a big city after graduation is a struggle even after earning a college degree. The high cost of living in a city only adds to a building mountain of debt resulting in a lower quality of life. The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in New York City is currently $2,700 per month. In Rochester, you can find a comparable apartment  for less than half of that amount at around $1,150 per month. You are likely splitting rent with new roommate at that price in NYC.

We should incentivize recent graduates to move to the region. We can do this through new student loan forgiveness programs, which would also be a way to attract future students who may not have considered the universities in the Rochester area before. Our economy benefits from retaining top local talent and students will be able to pay down their debt to invest in the region’s future.

This plan isn’t a new one. There are cities across the country offering student loan forgiveness programs similar to the one I propose. The Opportunity Maine program, which has successfully incentivized over 4,000 graduates to return to Maine since 2009. In 2011, the Kansas Department of Commerce began offering new full-time residents student loan repayments and/or state income tax waivers as an incentive to get people to move to 77 specific rural counties in the state. Since its launch, the Kansas Department of Commerce has boasted how “highly effective” the program has been. To date, there are over 3,400 applications for the program, with over one-third of those coming from out-of-state graduates. The program has helped over 2,000 Kansas natives to return home as well as attracted new individuals with a wide array of talents and occupations, particularly educators and healthcare professionals.

Rochester is uniquely positioned to have even more success with a similar program. As of now, most of the student loan forgiveness programs are situated in isolated rural areas; however, upstate is finding its mojo again with evolving cities with major attractions. Living here would be an enticing offer for many recent graduates who may not have otherwise considered the area.

When Rochester builds its talent base more employers and entrepreneurs will flock to our region and provide more opportunities so that everyone can benefit from the economic recovery of upstate New York.

Teale Fox