LINCOLN — Nebraska is losing its younger, college-educated population to other states.
It’s something many have suspected, but now there are hard numbers to turn those fears into facts.
Between 2000 and 2010, the state experienced a net outmigration of 20-29-year-olds, according to census data compiled by David Drozd of the Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Net migration refers to the difference between people moving to a state and those moving out of a state within the same time period.
The phenomenon was most pronounced among non-Hispanic whites. In the first decade of this century, 20,181 more non-Hispanic whites age 20-29 left Nebraska than moved to the state, by far the largest exodus of any age group.
An influx of international immigrants in their 20s to the state has mitigated the overall loss of young people but has not been enough to reverse the trend.
Nebraska also experienced a net loss of college-educated people, often referred to as a "brain drain," between 2007 and 2011, according to Drozd's data. Over that five-year period, the state lost more than 1,100 people with postsecondary degrees. Drozd's data shows that this is a continuing trend going back to at least 2005.
Nebraska's brain drain and its loss of young people are linked, according to Eric Thompson, director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "Young people are more likely to be college educated because it's more common now than it was 40 years ago to go to college," he said.
Thompson said he does not believe a lack of good jobs is entirely to blame for the flight of Nebraska's youth. "This is a great place to raise a family in an absolute and relative sense," he said. "In a relative sense, it's maybe not as great a place to be young and single."
Scott Fuess, chairman of the economics department at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, was more blunt in his assessment of the state's appeal to young people.
"Why would talented young people not want to leave?" he asked, adding that Nebraska is one of the most remote and sparsely populated states in the country. "Why wouldn't a 22-year-old college graduate be drawn by the allure of life in Chicago or the Twin Cities or Dallas or Houston?"
Thompson agreed that young people are often attracted to large urban areas where they perceive more opportunities for themselves. "Research shows that there are advantages for young people living in larger cities," he said. "Their skill rises faster in cities."
Fuess said it's not surprising that young people want to strike out to pursue opportunities elsewhere, but, he said, "what you want to focus on is trying to lure them back when they're having families."
This is what economists refer to as the "boomerang effect." People move away from an area in their 20s to gain experience and learn new skills elsewhere, only to return in their 30s to settle down and raise a family.
Thompson said he doesn't think youth outmigration is a major problem precisely because many of those people are coming back to the state in their 30s. The key, according to Thompson, is to lure them back.
"I think an effort to create even more and larger thriving metropolitan areas in the state and more rural and micropolitan areas would help the state," Thompson said.
He said tax policy could help do that. "Much of the research I've done suggests that households will move toward states and local areas that offer lower levels of government service and lower taxes," he said.
Fuess agrees that enticing people to return to the state later in life to start families is the best solution. "What would be a smart policy for development would to recognize that young people are going to leave and do what you can to attract them to come back when they're young parents," he said.
Both Fuess and Thompson acknowledged that most of those returning are settling in Omaha and Lincoln and that development should focus on those areas.
When asked if anything could be done to attract more people to rural parts of the state, Fuess said, "I doubt it. What are they going to do in those rural areas? I don't know that there's going to be a big boomerang effect to come back to remote, rural Nebraska."