New report shows low wages contributing to brain drain in Kansas, but state is holding its own in one key area

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

The University of Kansas campus is pictured in this September 2023 aerial photo.

When it comes to understanding Kansas’ “brain drain” — the idea that the state’s most highly-educated residents are leaving for other states — you don’t need much brain power to understand a major reason why it happens.


University of Kansas economics professor Donna Ginther has put together a new report on brain drain and a host of other issues involving college graduates and Kansas jobs. Ginther compiled the report at the request of higher education leaders in the state, but she has some short advice for the state’s business sector too.

“If people feel there is a labor shortage, pay more wages,” Ginther said at a recent presentation of her findings for the Kansas Board of Regents.

Indeed, the new report found that Kansas wages rank low compared to neighboring states in key occupations such as engineering, health care, and business management positions.

That’s not good news in Kansas’ efforts to slow the brain drain. But, the report has encouraging numbers too — while Kansas is losing a significant number of young college graduates, it is doing surprisingly well at attracting young college graduates from other states. Among the 11 states studied, Kansas was attracting college graduates 20 to 35 years old at the second highest rate. Only Colorado was attracting them at a greater rate. (The reasons why Colorado attracts at such a high rate are hazy. Some might even say smokey.)

So, let’s take a look at the good and the bad. First, the wages.

Ginther, who is the director of KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research, compared Kansas wages for select professions to those in Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas and Iowa. She also adjusted the wages for the cost-of-living in each state. In other words, it costs more to live in Colorado, so even though you earn more, you may not actually have more buying power. These wage numbers are meant to account for that, which makes some of the wage gaps all the more striking.

Among the findings were: Kansas wages ranked second to last in business management occupations; third from the bottom in education occupations; second to last in humanities/arts occupations; second to last in life sciences occupations; third to last in physical and earth science occupations; second to last in social science occupations; and last in both math/computer science occupations and in the broad category of engineering.

An engineer in Kansas earns $15,000 less, on average, than an engineer in Texas, and that is after Texas’ higher cost-of-living is factored into the equation. The gap between Kansas versus Colorado and Oklahoma is more than $10,000.

So many rankings at or near the bottom are having a predictable impact: Kansas graduates are moving to places that pay higher wages for workers with their degrees. But that is only part of the story. It is the part you hear most often in connection to the “brain drain” issue.

The less talked about number, though, is how many young degree holders we are attracting to the state.

Ginther’s report shows a classic good-news, bad-news situation. Kansas indeed has a problem with recent graduates moving on to other states. But, perhaps surprisingly, it is doing well in attracting recent graduates from other states.

The report tracks the number of Kansas degree holders age 20 to 35 who left the state between 2017 and 2021. On average about 17,500 Kansas college graduates left in any given year. The more important number is the percentage. That 17,500 represented 9.3% of all Kansas degree holders 20 to 35 years old.

None of the other 10 states had an out-migration statistic that was so high. Here’s a look:

• Kansas: 9.3%

• Iowa: 8.5%

• Missouri: 8.3%

• Oklahoma: 8.1%

• Colorado: 7.6%

• Nebraska: 7.5%

• Wisconsin: 6.9%

• Arkansas: 6.7%

• Minnesota: 5.3%

• Texas: 4.3%

• California: 4.1%

But the report also measured how many college degree-holders age 20 to 35 moved into Kansas in any given year. About 16,800, on average, came to Kansas. That represented about 8.9% of the state’s degree holders 20 to 35 years old.

That was the second highest in-migration rate of any of the 11 states. Here’s a look:

• Colorado: 11%

• Kansas: 8.9%

• Missouri: 7.0%

• Nebraska: 6.4%

• Oklahoma: 6.3%

• Texas: 5.8%

• Iowa: 5.7%

• Minnesota: 5.6%

• Wisconsin: 5.4%

• Arkansas: 5.2%

• California: 4.5%

In short, the numbers suggest Kansas does have a brain drain problem. That 9% number is high, and the number of students who are splitting the Sunflower state for places like Dallas, Denver and the West Coast is significant.

But the numbers also show Kansas is blunting a big part of that brain drain via one strategy that is near at hand: It is winning Kansas City.

In any year, young Kansas graduates move to the Missouri side of the K.C. state line, and young Missouri graduates move to the Kansas side of the line. What these numbers show, though, is that, on average, about 500 more Missouri graduates move to Kansas than the other way around. Those Missourians who have decided it is always sunnier in the Sunflower State, are the main reason that Kansas isn’t seeing its crop of young degree holders plummet.

That’s good news for Kansas because a shortage of young degree holders in any state is perilous because it is often those young degree holders who will become your next innovators and agents of growth and prosperity.

In total, Kansas has been seeing its young degree-holding population drop by less than a half-percent per year. That is far better than many states in the region. Here’s a look at the 11 states that were studied:

• Colorado: up 3.3% per year

• Texas: up 1.5% per year

• California: up 0.3% per year

• Minnesota: down 0.2% per year

• Kansas: down 0.4% per year

• Nebraska: down 1.15% per year

• Missouri: down 1.2% per year

• Arkansas: down 1.4% per year

• Wisconsin: down 1.5% per year

• Oklahoma: down 1.8% per year

• Iowa: down 2.8% per year

Kansas is real close to being on the positive side of the equation, and this latest report suggests the easiest way to get there is to convince more Kansas graduates to stay in the state. If the state can figure out how to do so, it would provide a boost to the state’s economy, but perhaps an even bigger one to economies like those in Lawrence.

More graduates staying in the state likely will mean more of them staying in Lawrence too.


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