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The Brain Drain March 22, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, Fargo, grad school, research, science, societal commentary.
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Yesterday, I was getting into my car when I noticed something on my windshield.


My neighbor had seen the article about me in yesterday’s paper and left me a message about it.  In fact, it hit three of major newspapers in the state. (If you care to read it, one copy is located here.)

When I was asked by the public relations person at NDSU if she could feature my research as part of an effort to promote the supercomputing facilities on campus, I was certainly glad to do so.  First, from a simply pragmatic point of view, it’s not a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you.  (Although, to be honest, they have a lot of other projects they could’ve featured.)  Second, and more important in my mind, is that this type of thing counters some of the negative attitude about the state universities in the western part of the state.

People from out of state (probably the 4 of my 5 readers) are probably not aware that there is a bit of a divide in state politics, and it can be roughly framed by drawing a vertical line down the center of the state.  The eastern part of the state has the major universities and sees the benefits of having them.  The western part of the state thinks the universities are sucking all of their hard-earned money, and worse yet – children, away from them.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s all I heard about was the ‘brain drain’ that the state was suffering: all of those bright, hard-working, born-in-North-Dakota kids were being educated at a low cost and then leaving the state.  The people in the western part of the state seemed to think we just ought not to spend so much money educating them.  I don’t think they understood that the likely result of that would not be to prevent brain drain but to accelerate it as those students would end up leaving for colleges out of state.  On the other hand, the eastern part of the state was asking for more and more money to fund already seriously underfunded universities which were teaching a lot more kids than they could realistically accommodate.  And we won’t even talk about research.  The universities are supposed to be there to serve the students from the state…what does research have to do with anything?

I was one of those kids that left straight out to go to college, and I really had no intention of returning.  I wanted to do research, and I knew that coming out of high school.  I knew that because I’d gotten involved in research through a state-sponsored program at NDSU as a high school student, and I also knew that I likely couldn’t do what I wanted here.  And why should I, when I could go someplace better?

If you fast forward to about 2000 (when I came back to return to school), there were some significant changes happening.  Great Plains software was bought out by Microsoft, making it the second largest Microsoft campus in the world.  There were companies in town doing engineering.  There was a way to stay in North Dakota with a technical degree.  And about that same time, NDSU started to make some aggressive moves to increase the size and reputation of its campus.

In the past ten years (even before the oil boom in the western part of the state), this significantly slowed the population loss the state was suffering.  However, the western part of the state was still shrinking, and this was probably aggravating the divide.  The eastern part of the state is right, though, IMO.  If you want to keep people from leaving, you need to find a way to create jobs, and not just any jobs: they have to be jobs that bright, educated people will want to do.  Universities are very often centers of creativity and entrepreneurship, and so bringing in more money to the universities will likely do a lot to create jobs and businesses.  Bright, educated people will start businesses to hire those that may not necessarily have the advanced degrees but are still hard workers.  The state is finally starting to see that, and they’re also using some of the money from the oil and gas taxes to create incentives for businesses to operate here.

Going back to the article, I was excited to do this as I see this as a way to communicate to the skeptics that the universities are good for the state.  Here is a project that I would likely have to do somewhere else if it weren’t for the fact that we have the facilities here and they are easily accessible.  Part of the reason I think my research was featured is not only the coolness factor, but the fact that I’m a native of the state and one of the people who, ostensibly, you don’t want leaving for a better job elsewhere.  So yes, the universities are doing something to keep people here, even if not in the western part of the state.  (On the other hand, it sounds like they have more people there now than they really know what to do with, which is another story altogether.)

My only disappointment in all this is that my hometown paper, the Bismarck Tribune, didn’t run the story.  I can’t help but wonder if that is a result of the fact that the divide still obviously exists.



1. dave_vandenbout - March 22, 2012

I wonder if the use of taxes on oil revenues from the western side to increase funding to the universities on the eastern side will lead to an even bigger divide in your state. I don’t think hearing about the great things going on in the east is going to make the people in the west feel any better, especially if they think (rightly or wrongly) that their tax money is disproportionally funding it. In essence, you’ve stopped the external brain drain from ND, but possibly created an internal brain drain from the west to the east.


mareserinitatis - March 22, 2012

Some of it is self-induced. They insist on sticking with ag and energy as the primary industries and have had the same attitude about funding for colleges in that part of the state, as well. Better to have a west to east brain drain than one that goes from the state to other states.

And as far as using taxes for oil, better that they stay in the state. Most of the revenue for the oil goes out of state, so better to keep the taxes on that stuff higher and keep the money in the state. (Especially given how badly the western part of the state is being affected.) Not all of the revenues are heading east. As I understand it, they’re starting to invest a significant portion into the western part of the state to deal with the lack of infrastructure due to the huge population growth. The problem is (at least for those of us who lived in the 70s and 80s in that part of the state), all that stuff will end up being useless once the oil goes away. Best to use a good chunk of it to develop other, more long-term industries that will keep people employed.


2. nicoleandmaggie - March 22, 2012

The public finance textbook I teach out of makes the argument that public universities are a waste of money because some large % of kids leave the state. I think it’s a dumb argument– one that is probably also more true for small states than for large states. (So CA, NY, TX etc. probably should invest more in their universities! RI, NH, CT… they may be losing their best and brightest to MA.) But universities don’t just educate kids, they also contribute to research in the area for local businesses and make the areas more attractive to businesses that recruit highly educated people in general. The public university I work at has huge ties to industry throughout the state, especially in technical fields. And you’re right, it’s the industry that attracts people.


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