St. Louis Area Sees Big Brain Gain, But Is It the Opposite of Brain Drain?

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A study released yesterday by the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy (below) has some people declaring victory against “brain drain”. The numbers look particularly rosy for St. Louis. According to the Aaron Renn, author of the study, in 2000 St. Louis was 2% more educated than the nation as a whole, with 24.8% of residents over the age of 25 having a four-year degree, compared to the national average of 24.3%. In 2013, St. Louis was 10% more educated than the nation as a whole, with 32.5% of residents having attained at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 29.6% for the nation as a whole.

This means that beyond simply adding college educated residents, the St. Louis area outpaced the average national growth. St. Louis did add a lot of college educated residents. In 2013 there were 182,710 more people with at least a bachelor’s degree in the metro area than in 2000. That represents a 41.9% increase, and a 7.7% rise in the share of residents with a four-year degree. For 25-34-year-olds, the gain was 37,309 – a big number for even “cool” metros. Over the same time period San Francisco added 45,654. There’s plenty of good news, but still a lot to unpack with this study.

First, what is “brain drain”? At a base level it’s losing college educated residents. The idea of “brain drain” seems to have taken such a hold that some (many?) believe the raw number of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree is decreasing in some large cities. In response to “draining brains”, many places have ramped up their rhetoric, PR, and marketing efforts, and sometimes created new policy in an attempt to retain and lure a greater number of college educated, usually young, residents.

Buffalo cartoonIn a way, it’s easy to see how the “brain drain” phenomena can take hold. Look around your city, see all those college kids? Lots of them will move away upon graduation = brain drain! The popular notion is that a few cool costal locales are draining talent from other not-so-in-fashion cities. When your region is losing jobs and/or population, it’s perhaps even easier to imagine cool cities stealing your brains.

But then there are two issues here: 1) losing raw numbers of college educated residents, 2) losing ground to other cities in attracting college educated residents. The study is good news to those who feared their city may have fewer residents with college degrees than in the past. The second issue is more complicated.

Americans as a whole are becoming significantly more educated. From the study: college-degree attainment among Americans aged 25–34 is 32.9 percent and for those over 65, 24.1 percent. And so it’s almost certainly accurate to say that all large American metro areas are experiencing “brain gain” instead of drain. That’s pretty simple. Hopefully not many thought that a major metro area like St. Louis was actually becoming less educated due to cool cities stealing our brains.

With that notion of brain drain plugged, what we should care about is whether or not a metro area is gaining brains at a slower rate than others. Over a decade, a region can increase by 10% the number of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree, but if other cities, or the average city is adding 20%, that region could be said to be gaining brains, but also draining them to other places.

In this study, Renn looked at 28 metro areas among the nation’s 100 largest which had lost population and/or jobs from 2000-2013. Seven had experienced both population and job loss, one (Pittsburgh) saw population decline but job growth, and the rest, including St. Louis, experienced slow population growth and job decline. The study found that all 28 of the metro areas examined are gaining residents with college degrees at a double-digit rate.

The sample size here was purposely limited to focus on America’s “shrinking cities”. What Renn found was that nearly half of the 28 shrinking cities outpaced the national brain gain average, and again, that all 28 added residents with at least a bachelor’s degree. This has resulted in the study being largely characterized by news coverage (in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago) reporting the raw numbers as revealing the myth of brain drain is really brain gain. As of publishing this piece, I hadn’t seen anything written in St. Louis.

What’s much more informative is to consider how a metro area is doing relative to others. This is addressed in the study as well, by a measure labeled the location quotient (LQ). The LQ measures how fast the college educated workforce grew relative to the national average (now at 29.6%). While every metro area is gaining college educated residents, a positive LQ means that the region outpaced growth in the national average.


By this measure, the study shows St. Louis doing quite well. The region’s LQ of 0.08 is the third highest measured of the 28 metros in the study, outpaced by only Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids, MI. This means that St. Louis has a greater concentration of college educated residents relative to the nation today than it did in 2000. This is certainly good news, but we should want to know more.

Looking at cities that regularly appear among the most educated in the nation, the study found Austin, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington D.C. with negative LQs from 2000-2013. Some of this is explained by those cities being far above the national average in 2000, and so continuing to gain college graduates at a faster rate than the rest of the nation wasn’t sustainable. However, this does show that there gap between the Denvers and St. Louis’s of the nation isn’t widening.

Of the 28 metro areas examined in the study, about half outpaced the national average growth, and half fell short. Again, all 28 metros added college graduates, but if you’re falling short of the national average growth, you’re falling behind. It’s also less than clear that using the national average provides a good breaking point to label metro areas as gaining or losing ground.

St. Louis measures well against 27 other “shrinking” metro area, but how does it rate against the metro areas we envy, or aspire to become? Perhaps we should consider the average growth of the top 50 metros. Of course that’s a different question than the brain gain study sought to answer.

Looking at 2010, St. Louis ranked 42nd in residents with at least a bachelor’s degree, with 29.9%. That may be a little misleading as much smaller college towns like Provo, UT and Madison, WI rank higher. This is where the East-West Gateway “Where We Stand” reports on the state of St. Louis are very useful. The latest report, just recently released, looked at the nation’s 50 largest metro areas by population (past reports looked at roughly 30 metro areas based on population, distance from St. Louis, and economic function, seeking “peer” cities).

According to EWG, in 1990 20.7% of St. Louis area residents had earned at least a bachelor’s degree. This ranked 23rd of the 30 cities listed. In 2000, the number was 25.3%, ranking 24th and below the average of the 35 peer city’s 28.3%. In 2005 the number stood at 28%, still ranking 24th and still below the average of 31.3%. St. Louis was experiencing brain gain, but not gaining on other cities.

For the latest report, showing 2013 figures, the measurement changed slightly to include the 50 largest metro areas, and comparing them to the national average of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree. This shows St. Louis at 32.5%, ranked 22nd, and nearly at the 32.7% average of the 50 largest metros. This gain is the result of St. Louis’ above average increase in percent of adults with four year college degrees.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 10.24.31 AM{image from East-West Gateway’s “Where We Stand” 2015}

So what to make of it? We’ll look at one more measure: by how many percentage points St. Louis trails a spot in the top 10. In 1990 this was 4.1%, in 2000 the gap was 4.2%, in 2005 it was 6%, and in 2013 4.9%. This shows St. Louis making recent progress, but not big strides in catching up to the top 10 metro areas. The diverging rates of college educated residents may have slowed, and in some places reversed. Whether this trend will continue is unknown.

For St. Louisans, the revelation from all of this may be that 618,650 residents here have at least a bachelor’s degree. That’s a big number and points to an educated and quickly growing workforce. The region isn’t a backwater for talent, and isn’t experiencing anything like the simply addition or subtraction notion of “brain drain”.

The study isn’t just a statistical exercise, it makes a policy recommendation. The study’s conclusion reads in part, “these cities have largely accomplished their objective of boosting brain power and are making positive strides in terms of college-degree attainment. This brain gain is cause for celebration. The vast amount of effort and money currently dedicated to stopping or reversing brain drain should be redirected to worthier pursuits.”

A full consideration of the issue of brain drain or gain doesn’t seem to support this recommendation. If these cities have indeed been successful, why not continue with existing efforts? The need to grow an educated workforce and compete against other metros for talent isn’t going away. If St. Louis is indeed seeing real relative brain gain, shouldn’t we double-down on current efforts?

The study shows perhaps “brain drain” isn’t an existential problem that will doom uncool cities to irrelevancy (even the relative numbers aren’t falling of a cliff). Any misplaced popular notion that metro areas have a decreasing number of college educated residents has been debunked. Anyone with their finger on the panic button, or building a political platform to combat brain drain may have reason for pause.

Yet, if a region like St. Louis, near the very top of the 28 examined here is maybe eking out some gains when compared to other large metro areas, those metros nearer the national average are likely losing ground to other top 50 metros, and those losing ground relative to the national average may be in real trouble. That these places are gaining in raw numbers alone shouldn’t be cause for celebration.

Brain Gain in America’s Shrinking Cities – Manhattan Institute (Aaron Renn) by

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  • Rita Earley

    I have been visiting STL a lot in the last 3 years because my daughter moved there. I’ve been studying the housing market, and to be honest I find it fraught with difficulty.
    You either have to send children to private school or buy in a very expensive suburb. I have not found a reason to buy in “greater St Louis”. Recent events have not helped, and it seems impossible to predict which areas will be the next to turn sour. This is a shame, because we love the city, but we think buying is risky.

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  • Daron

    Letting go of young people is best for young people. Don’t convince them to stay in one place when there’s a whole world out there. Let them come back when they have seen some things and recognize what is wrong with this place. We should work on building a boomerang migration plan not a retaining and sheltering plan.

    Why do our 24 to 30 year olds have to come from local universities? Build up the grad schools and post docs. Build up opportunities for any young people from anywhere, but stop targeting the local kids in an attempt to keep them from going anywhere.

  • I live in Cleveland and I gotta say I don’t think we’re very focused on preventing brain drain at all. We’re more likely imo to defiantly shun progressive policy innovations — like bike lanes — other cities see as important for “talent.” It makes me a little suspicious of this report, which comes from this conservative group.

    • John R

      Well, at least you have zagster and uber! We’ve made some progress on bike lanes but aren’t exactly ahead of the pack.

  • Tim E

    I think what is lacking is a discussion in a trade or skill not necessarily gained at a college or 4 yr degree. College degrees, as some posters noted, doesn’t necessarily mean a step up unless you are willing to dive into the type of degree and graduate education. In some cases, way too many students are piling on debt with little or no return. Where as skills and trades are stepping stone to a huge number of jobs.
    Which gets back to St. Louis region, like a lot of rust belt cities, use to be a manufacturing and automotive powerhouse. It is a big gaping hole in jobs that haven’t come back for the region, why in terms of education? For one, I do think the region has its share of diverse and strong universities. However, how does the community colleges and vocational programs rate? Do the local high schools even have vocational programs anymore? Does St Louis really have good advance manufacturing training programs? Would a dedicated IT campus make a difference?

    • John R

      ^ Good question. I think know advanced manufacturing is on our biz community’s radar but I don’t think it is quite as established as places like Pittsburgh and Detroit. That can be a fruitful area for advanced research and highly-skilled but not necessarily 4 yr. degreed workers.

    • Marr62

      The English programs in the area probably aren’t very strong if people write sentences like, “However, how does the community colleges and vocational programs rate?”

  • STLBrainGain

    First point–the value of a college degree today is somewhat akin to what a high school diploma was 10 to 20 years ago. Very little value, depending on major. Perhaps attainment of higher degrees or specialized, relevant skills should be a better measurement.

    Second point–How does your rosy picture of this Manhattan Institute for Public Policy square away with the somewhat dismal, State of the St. Louis Workforce Report released no less than 2 months ago? Here are 2 points straight from the seventh annual State of the St. Louis Workforce:

    · For the first time since the survey began, the shortage of workers with knowledge or skills is the most frequently cited barrier to expanding employment, surpassing economic conditions and government policies or regulations.

    · Fifty-five percent of employers reported experiencing skill shortages. When asked, 83 percent of the employers surveyed reported that they, “were forced to hire less experienced workers and train them,” and 41 percent reported, “offering increased wages due to skill shortages.”

    Despite having more “college-educated”, you cannot build a region’s economy if the above 2 points are major problems. This is why the St. Louis economy is stagnant. Recent national headlines don’t make us appealing either for “brain gain”. Did you see on CNN “St. Louis woman’s Black Lives matter rant goes viral”? Classic St. Louis from one of our own.

    • Marr62

      I would guess you never took a class in labor economics. If “offering increased wages” helps to solve the problem, then there is not truly a “shortage.” It just means that the wage rate isn’t high enough to attract the number of workers that the businesses desire. Higher wages in this field then serve to attract additional workers. Why is this a problem?

      Similarly, why is it a problem that 83 percent of employers had to hire less experienced workers and train them? What’s the alternative – no workers ever being trained? I’m very experienced at the job I do. 17 years ago I had no experience in this field. I had a certain skill set and was hired by an employer who allowed me to apply that skill set to a different area. Why is that bad?

      Do you know what specific people fill out the surveys compiled in the State of the St. Louis Workforce Report? Is it HR people who have a very narrow view due to their almost complete focus on recruiting?

      • BrainGain

        I agree with what you are saying. If you can’t find a perfect match for a job opening, then why not hire and train up your workforce. Build it. I wish area St. Louis employers would hire unemployed in East St. Louis. Those folks sure do need better job opportunities. Please write to area companies HR and tell them to hire area folks who are in desperate need of a job. Support the people of St. Louis and don’t forget about the folks in East St. Louis too.

  • John R

    I don’t really find this issue too interesting other than it verifies that the national trend of a more educated populace moving to urban regions applies to Rust Belt Cities as well as Glamour Cities. What I find more interesting is how well rust belt metros are using their growing brains by investing in education, transit, etc. and the urban core. I’m not sure how well we are doing in this regard with respect to our peers.

  • matimal

    I assume these stats are for MSAs.

  • Presbyterian

    Glad to hear we aren’t falling behind, at least!

    • CWE1959

      This data is through 2013 and prior to the events in Ferguson. The issues that were exposed as a result of the Federal investigations surrounding policing, etc. and the increased crime/murder rate are damaging the image of St. Louis. These issues clearly outline the continued role of racial and economic discriminatory policies in our region. Seven educated professional friends/colleagues of mine have moved out of St. Louis in the last two months. My experience is clearly antidotal and may not represent a larger trend in the region, but I’ll be interested to see the data for 2015 and 2016. Education is one key to creating opportunities for growth in St. Louis. However, this region must address the disparities within the educational system, employment, etc. or we will continue only at best be, “Glad to hear we aren’t falling behind, at least!”

      • Alex Ihnen

        It’s hard not to agree, but by many measures St. Louis is doing better than many cities on issues of poverty and other issues. I hope to write more about that soon. Of course that in no way whatsoever means that things are great here for everyone, or that we do not have problems. I only mention it to say that we shouldn’t underestimate the problems of other regions relative to St. Louis, and the very serious problems in St. Louis affect the most educated the least.

        • JZ71

          I agree that we “shouldn’t underestimate the problems of other regions relative to St. Louis, and [that] the very serious problems in St. Louis affect the most educated the least”, but that is at odds with your first statement that “by many measures St. Louis is doing better than many cities on issues of poverty and other issues.” If we were “doing better”, we wouldn’t be facing the very real, inter-related, crime, racism and poverty issues that are hallmarks of our daily news.

          • Adam

            A nitpick, but Alex’s two statements are not at odds. I’m not weighing in on the veracity of either, but “doing better” than someone doesn’t preclude “not underestimating” them.

          • JZ71

            We’re nitpicking 3 statements – “St. Louis is doing better”, “undersetimat[ing] the problems of other regions” and “the very serious problems in St. Louis affect the most educated the least”. Based on poverty rates, crime rates and economic growth, a big part of the Ferguson “issue” is that many African Americans are being marginalized and feeling increasingly isolated in the region. The real variable is what exactly is “St. Louis”? The central corridor, the entire city, the county (with the city) or the region/SMSA?

          • Alex Ihnen

            It makes the most sense to consider MSA/metro when looking at metrics like this. Regional economies are defined by MSA and ignore local political divisions.

          • Nat76

            MSA or urban area are definitely a better way to go as they capture the regional dynamics.

            The ability to draw any meaningful conclusions out of Renn’s analysis is difficult regardless. He is presenting the case for increases in young college educated workers, but he only indirectly touches upon possible explanations for the flipside (the changes in non-BA workers) through LQ. Interesting comparisons from the I-70(ish) corridor. From 2000 to the 5-year 2013 ACS at the urban area level for 25-34 year olds (BA+ and less than BA):

            St. Louis +25% BA, -5% below BA
            Pittsburgh +24% BA, -11% below BA
            Columbus +27% BA, +7% below BA
            Indianapolis +28% BA, +10% below BA

            All are very close to middle of the pack among the largest 50-60 urban areas in the country for growth in young college grads, but the narrative among less educated is completely different. Some growth is probably a good thing for the lower educated cohort. It means that jobs are available in fields like manufacturing, distribution, construction, retail, etc. The most employable who aren’t college educated can stay. A decline means a greater proportion of most employable/mobile who aren’t college educated are more likely to leave a region like STL or PIT. PIT and STL are probably “right sizing” their workorce, but it comes with costs: fewer working class immigrants (domestic and foreign) and a higher probability of greater social inequality as the BA group grows and the non-BA group is increasingly comprised of less employable/mobile/poor segments.

      • JZ71

        I’m not sure I get the “region must address the disparities within the educational system, employment, etc.” – “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink”. Unlike Garrison Keeler’s Lake Woebegone, we’re not all going to be “above average”. People that choose not be educated and choose not to work hard will remain below average. Educated, wealthier, people definitely have more choices, including where they live and work, than less-well-educated and less-affluent people, but that is primarily a personal choice / series of good or bad decisions than something that reflects the opportunities any region offers (or doesn’t).

      • matimal

        St. Louis’ elite employers are expanding and increasingly concentrating in the Central Corridor.

        • Adam

          Some expansion (Edward Jones comes to mind), yes, but increasingly concentrating? Can you give some examples ’cause that’s not my impression. Are we talking about 20-year time scales or 200-year time scales? And are we including Clayton? I’m just thinking about all the recent expansions—Centene, WWT, Express Scripts, Monsanto—that skipped the city.

          • matimal

            The endlessly growth of the set medical institutions, cortex, Universities, and whatever’s going on in Clayton come to mind. These institutions have some of the highest paid employees in metro St. Louis.

          • John R

            I don’t think there is any doubt well-paying jobs are growing in the Central Corridor, but I’m not so sure that there is a major shift percentage-wise towards the corridor versus the more far-flung burbs. Adam mentioned some biggies but also left out Edward Jones, RGA, Scottrade, etc, etc, which are all booming past Clayton.

            And if you take out Clayton out of the Central Corridor equation, the City surely continues to capture a smaller and smaller percentage of the region’s professional jobs. Anyway, it would be nice to take a look at where the brains are concentrating in the workplace.

          • matimal

            Many of the jobs going west are not really ‘professional’ jobs, they’re ordinary routine middle-income jobs that economically are not nearly productive and innovative as those in the Central West End or Downtown. For example, insurance underwriting is not nearly as profitable or innovative as inventing new medical technologies or procedures. Boeing and Dupont developing new technologies and products in Cortex and the academic researchers at Washington U or SLU are vastly more powerful for our regional economy than financial service call centers in the far west burbs. It’s the call centers and underwriters going west, not the innovators.

          • John R

            What your talking about is different than the point of the discussion which is growth in the populace with 4 yr. degrees.

            And while I agree with you that the City fares better with the subset of advanced degrees and research positions compared to degree-required positions as a whole, let’s not get carried away here. Cortex, e.g. doesn’t really employ that many people yet — Boeing Ventures you mentioned is about 20 people working in space about the size of a 1 bedroom apartment — and our substantial bio-tech research industry is clustered in Creve Couer. Hopefully Wexford will be very successful in both its Cortex and BRDG centers.

          • matimal

            You gotta start somewhere. Still, there are thousands of professionals working in the central corridor. I’d argue that 20 researchers at Boeing are more promising for St. Louis’ future than a 1,000 insurance underwriters performing tedious tasks that will likely be automated within the decade. Moving them to cheap land and a cheap building is just a way of keeping an established low-profit business going a bit longer.