116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Iowa’s trouble with brain drain — the departure of college graduates to other states — is not a new issue, but a recent report illustrates just how poorly Iowa ranks among U.S. states.
Iowa has the 10th-worst percentage difference in the nation between the number of college graduates it produces and the number of college graduates living in the state — a negative 34 percent — according to a recent Washington Post analysis that uses data from a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
That figure is lower than the six states bordering Iowa. The next closest is Wisconsin at negative 21 percent.
Illinois has the nation’s fifth-highest retention rate — plus 20 percent — according the analysis.
Iowa’s population growth has been stagnant for more than a decade, and for years Iowa policymakers and economic development officials have worked to find ways to keep more new college graduates from moving out of state.
State experts said part of the problem is Iowa lacks enough well-paying jobs for all the college graduates Iowa produces.
“It’s all relative, and (Iowa), compared to other states, relatively does a good job, historically, of producing human capital, which is producing college graduates,” said John Winters, an economics professor at Iowa State University. “But the flip side … as far as on the demand side, the demand for college graduates, Iowa overall is not as strong.”
Haifeng Qian, an associate professor in the School of Planning and Public Affairs and Public Policy Center at the University of Iowa, said states with large metropolitan areas typically fare better in the hunt for recent college graduates. The simple reason: Metropolitan areas contain more job opportunities.
According to the Post’s analysis, the five states with the best ratio of college graduates produced to those living there are Colorado, New York, Washington, California and Illinois. The five states with the lowest ratio are Kansas, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Vermont.
“It’s just pure economics. It’s about supply and demand in the labor market,” Qian said. “These large metropolitan (areas) really are a magnet to attract skilled workers.”
Winters noted significant disparities within Iowa, with the state’s larger cities keeping more college graduates — and more people in general — while mid-sized cities and rural communities are losing population.
“If you look at the population numbers, Des Moines has done really well. Ames is, of course, much smaller, but Ames has done relatively well. Iowa City has done relatively well,” Winters said.
“Most of the rest of the state has not done very well — in population overall, but especially in this migration of highly educated workers,” he said. “I keep saying it comes back to jobs. A lot of those places, yeah, they have some jobs, and they have some that are OK paying. But they’re not very high paying and don’t have necessarily as many opportunities for climbing up the career ladder.”
Iowa’s population grew 4.7 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to federal census data. Nearly 80 percent of the growth happened in the state’s four largest counties, while 68 counties posted population losses.
An IowaWatch analysis showed that seven of every 10 of the state’s 923 towns with fewer than 5,000 people lost population or made no gains from 2010 to 2020.
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