Kansas exporting college graduates to other states

Wichita — Fewer people who graduate from a Kansas college or university are choosing to stay in Kansas over the long run, prompting concerns about the prospect of a “brain drain” out of the state, the Kansas Board of Regents heard Wednesday.

But it’s unclear whether that’s because the higher education system is failing to align itself with the Kansas economy, or whether the local economy is failing to offer the opportunities that college graduates today want.

“I think we can put the blame in a lot of places,” Regents President and CEO Blake Flanders said. “I think it’s something we can work together on. I would say it’s all of our responsibility to make our state the best that we can.”

Flanders addressed the board Wednesday during its annual retreat, which is being held this year in Wichita. The annual events are designed to allow the board to focus on long-range plans and strategic goals for the state’s higher education system as a whole.

One of the board’s strategic goals is to align the higher education system with the economic needs of Kansas. And one of the ways that’s measured is by the number of graduates who end up getting long-term employment in Kansas.

From 2010 to 2014, Flanders said, the percentage of Kansas college graduates who are employed in Kansas within one year of completion has remained relatively flat, while the number who remain employed here five years after graduation has been declining.

And that is true for all types of post-secondary graduates, whether they earn certificates at a technical college, an associate’s degree at a community college, or a four-year bachelor’s degree from one of the six Regents universities.

But those earning bachelor’s and graduate degrees are the most likely to leave the state, Flanders said.

In 2014, fewer than half (47 percent) of the people who’d earned bachelor’s degrees five years earlier were still employed in Kansas, Flanders said. That was down from 52 percent four years earlier.

People earning master’s and doctoral degrees have had even more difficulty finding jobs in Kansas.

In 2014, only 45 percent of people earning master’s degrees and only one-third of those earning doctoral degrees were employed in Kansas in their first year after graduating, according to Board of Regents data.

“There is a war for talent nationally,” Flanders said. “And so college graduates are in high demand, and they’re recruited by companies outside of this state.”

Flanders pointed to a program at Wichita State University as an example of things other schools can do to connect students with Kansas employers while they’re still in school.

WSU’s Innovation Campus is a 120-acre complex where private companies set up operations alongside the university’s research facilities and employ students while they are still in school, giving them experience working on real-world projects.

“Students are actually working while they’re going to college, and then they’re connected to a company before they ever graduate, which has really been shown to increase the number that stay and work for that company,” Flanders said.

Still, Flanders conceded that there is only so much that colleges and universities can do to keep graduates in Kansas when there are better employment opportunities outside the state.

“Our institutions are beginning to take that lead to connect students,” he said. “We welcome any partnership from the economic development community as well.”