The Des Moines Register
Author: Lauren Mills
Iowa's population has remained largely stagnant over several decades and, despite state efforts to entice young workers to stay, many Iowa college graduates leaving the state are keeping it that way.
"I always saw Drake as more of a transitional place, or, like all of Iowa as a more transitional place," Joey Wolfe, 21, said in a new IowaWatch.org report on where 2015 college graduates in Iowa plan to use their education.
Wolfe, a Kansas City, Mo., native, said he plans to move to Seattle and apply to the University of Washington Law School after graduating from Drake University with degrees in English and political science.
Brain drain — the exodus of young and well-educated individuals, like Wolfe — raises plenty of concerns about the health and future of a state's economy.
"Certainly we know that Iowa needs to grow its population in order to provide the companies that are growing here and choosing Iowa with the highly skilled employees that they are going to need," said Tina Hoffman, marketing and communications director for the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
But re-branding the state to appeal to a young workforce is challenging.
"It's more than just showing we have good nightlife, with a bunch of bars and restaurants," said Danny Laudick, talent solutions coordinator for the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. "It's showing that people in the area have the same interests as you and you are not limiting yourself by staying here."
Some data are available to track how many students move out of the state, including surveys conducted by Iowa's regent universities. The data show roughly half of students from the University of Iowa and Iowa State University leave, while many from the University of Northern Iowa, 85 percent in the latest survey, stayed.
Although anecdotal evidence suggests some graduates will return to the state after a few years, no data exist to show just how many come back.
“All of my family lives in the Des Moines area, so if I wanted to get married and settle down, I would definitely consider moving back to Des Moines to be close to my parents,” Simpson College senior Emma Jones, of Ankeny, said. (Photo: Tessa Lengeling/IowaWatch)
Student journalists at seven campuses interviewed graduating students about their post-graduation plans as part of the IowaWatch.org College Media Project, an effort to explain brain drain among 2015 Iowa college graduates. Most of the 18 graduating seniors interviewed — 14 — said they planned to leave Iowa, although some native Iowans said they would like to return to settle down and be near family.
"All of my family lives in the Des Moines area, so if I wanted to get married and settle down, I would definitely consider moving back to Des Moines to be close to my parents," Simpson College senior Emma Jones, of Ankeny, said.
Jones, 22, accepted a job with Epic, a medical software company in Madison, Wis., but said she had thought about looking for jobs in Des Moines or Iowa City.
Jacob Mallams, 21, an Iowa State University student who will move to Wichita, Kan., for a job at Cessna Aircraft Co. after graduating, said he grew up in a rural Iowa town, New London, and “it’s always been good to me.” (Photo: Danielle Ferguson/IowaWatch)
Jacob Mallams, 21, an Iowa State University student who will move to Wichita, Kan., for a job at Cessna Aircraft Co. after graduating, said he grew up in a rural Iowa town, New London, and "it's always been good to me."
"It's kind of always been my idea that I would move out for a little bit then eventually come back," he said.
"But I do want to get out. I feel like there's more stuff I need to experience before I settle down."
Decades-long battle to grow population
Iowa has faced slow population growth and a high percentage of elderly residents for decades. Its population grew 4.4 percent from the 2000 census to 2010 census, half the national rate for that time period.
U.S. Census data show that Iowa had the lowest percent increase in population growth from 1900 to 2010 of all 50 states. During the last census count in 2010, Iowa's elderly population, which represented nearly 15 percent of the population, placed it among the five states with the highest percentage of people aged 65 and older. Census numbers also show declining populations in rural counties.
State officials say they are working to increase the appeal of Iowa to young, skilled workers and the recent additions of companies like Facebook and Google boosted Iowa's reputation as a state for young professionals.
Angi McKie, senior director of operations at the U of I Pomerantz Career Center, said several factors influence a student's decision to leave the state, including whether the student originally is from out of state and what the student wants in a job.
McKie said professionals at the center try to make students aware of job opportunities in Iowa through the center's Consider Iowa program.
Hoffman said the Economic Development Authority has internship programs related to targeted industries, "putting some dollars behind making sure that our companies that are growing can go out and seek interns that are in college right now."
"It's almost a trial run for both the student and the company to see if that's a relationship that might work over a longer term," she said.
Choosing to stay
Joey Gale, 21, who will graduate from Drake University after studying marketing, information systems and leadership, said his goal is to stay in Iowa and take advantage of opportunities available to young professionals.
"It seems like a lot of young professionals here are getting a lot of good experience here and getting it quickly and moving up at a young age," the Plymouth, Minn., native said.
Gale said Des Moines seems like an active, growing city, citing the recent Forbes ranking of "America's Best Cities for Young Professionals," which placed Des Moines at the top of the list. "It is definitely somewhere I want to be right now."
Colin Halbmaier, 22, a creative writing major preparing to graduate from Loras College, said he planned on looking for jobs in Dubuque or in his hometown of Cedar Falls, although he was unsure where he would end up.
"Ultimately, I would just want to keep creativity at the heart of it," he said, adding he was looking at jobs such as reporting or working for a nonprofit.
Reasons they leave
Iowa Workforce Development teamed up with the governor's office, the Department of Education and the Economic Development Authority to study factors influencing the migration of college graduates out of the state.
In 2008 and 2013 Iowa student surveys, Iowa Workforce Development worked with community colleges, state and private universities to ask students whether they were thinking about leaving the state post-graduation and what influences their decision. Almost half of the 2013 respondents, 45 percent, leaned toward staying in Iowa, with 32 percent saying they were unsure and 23 percent leaning toward leaving.
More than 5,000 students responded to the 2013 survey, with 42 percent of respondents from regent universities, 35 percent from community colleges and 15 percent from private colleges. The survey was conducted from February to June 2013.
The study found community college students were most likely to stay in Iowa, with about 55 percent saying they leaned toward staying. Private college students were next, with about 43 percent saying they leaned toward staying. Students at the regent universities were the least likely, with 35 percent leaning toward staying.
The survey explored several factors that could influence students' decisions to stay, including attractive job benefits, outdoor recreation opportunities, clean or safe communities and affordable costs of living. For each factor, the survey measures whether the students would be influenced by it and whether they believed Iowa offered it.
Large percentages said competitive wages or entertainment options that interested them would influence their decisions, although relatively few thought either was available in Iowa. Of the respondents, 84 percent said competitive wages would attract them to stay in the state, but only 46 percent said Iowa offers such wages.
Students' dissatisfaction with entertainment opportunities grew between the 2008 and the 2013 surveys. In 2008, just over half, or 51 percent of students, agreed that Iowa had interesting entertainment options. That decreased to roughly 37 percent in 2013.
The report noted that many students stated that Iowa is most attractive to those who are married and raising a family.
Melanie Horton, 22, an Iowa State University student who will graduate with majors in environmental studies and environmental science and a minor in speech communications, said she plans on heading to Florida to be near her brother. (Photo: Danielle Ferguson/IowaWatch)
Melanie Horton, 22, an Iowa State University student who will graduate with majors in environmental studies and environmental science and a minor in speech communications, said she plans on heading to Florida to be near her brother.
The Chicago native said she doesn't plan on returning to Iowa. Instead, she said she planned on traveling and working as an environmental or health advocate. If she settled down, she said, it would be near family in Chicago or Florida or wherever she ends up.
Horton said she was glad she came to Iowa for school, although it originally was her "backup to my backup to my backup school."
"It was beautiful, and people are so nice. I never had this kind of nice anywhere I went," she said of the campus.
The inclination of out-of-state students like Richert and Horton to leave Iowa follows trends found in the Iowa Workforce Development's student survey. Only 11 percent of out-of state-student respondents said they leaned toward staying. Iowa natives were likely to stay, although 16 percent said they leaned towards leaving.
Sheldon Gaskell, who came to Cornell College from Enfield, Conn., said he felt like he had put roots down in Iowa and considered sticking around after graduation. He said the low costs of living and availability of jobs in Iowa were appealing.
Gaskell, a creative writing and English major, flirted with the idea of working in an Iowa vineyard. "Hard, manual labor has always been something that was good for me, for my writing," he said, "especially working with different kinds of people, seeing where they come from, really seeing the different kinds of backgrounds of people's lives really fuels my writing."
He eventually decided to head home to write and fill out another round of applications for graduate schools.
Hoffman, of the Economic Development Authority, said Iowa has to be better and louder when spreading the word about opportunities available in Iowa.
"We tend to be kind of a humble group of people and maybe we don't talk about all the great things that we know are here loud enough so that everybody else knows," she said.
"It's important to keep telling the story and to tell it with the pride that those of us who are here have."