scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Generation Boston

Boston may not have ‘brain drain’ issue, report says

Area retains about 50 percent of the graduates of its colleges and universities

Graduates of Boston University at its 141st commencement ceremony at Nickerson Field in May. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

The city’s historic hand-wringing on the retention of its college students may be misplaced, a report from the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute says.

Instead, the report argues, a better indicator of the economic vitality of the area can be found in its growing population of educated young adults — regardless of where they went to school.

Boston’s retention of the students who attend its dozen of higher education institutions has long been a concern for local officials and companies, as the area strives for an engaged, youthful workforce. Public agencies and business groups have offered incentives for graduates to stay, including tuition subsidies and increased access to internships and job programs.


But despite the exodus of half of its student population each year, Boston may not have an issue with “brain drain” at all because the city remains able to attract and retain plenty of young workers, says the report.

“The more important question is how many younger, skilled workers are choosing to be in Boston and the surrounding areas,” said Dan Hodge, the director of the UMass Donahue Institute. “How much does it matter if they were educated at BU or Dartmouth?”

About 150,000 students graduate from Greater Boston colleges and universities each spring. Over the past decade, the percentage of graduates staying in the area has stayed steady at 50 percent, even as the number of young adults in the area has increased, according to the US Census.

The reason for this disparity is twofold: Boston’s colleges are expanding – from enrolling 86,000 in 2000 to 101,000 in 2010– and the area’s young workforce is growing.

“I think it’s terrific to have the incredible base of higher education that is in Boston,” said Joe Cortright, the director of the urban policy think tank City Observatory. “It adds to the critical mass. The biggest attraction of young, educated people is other young people.”


The number of 25- to 34-year-olds — young adults who are more likely to be permanent residents than transient students, the report said — increased 2.7 percent from 2000 to 2010 in Boston. In all, the young adult population of 20- to 34-year-olds comprises 48 percent of the city’s resident workforce, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Whether they are educated in Greater Boston and stay or move to the Boston area with degrees in hand does not matter, the report argues.

What percentage of Boston graduates stay in the area?
Retention rates of area universities for 2005 graduates
UMass Boston
Average Retention Rate
Boston College
Boston University
DATA: Northeastern University, World Class Cities Partnership
Globe Staff

Graduates of public universities were more likely to set down roots nearby, a 2013 study by the New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found. In New England, however, roughly 70 percent of recent college graduates earned their degree from a private institution.

The area’s most prestigious universities, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, report lower student retention rates than other area schools, according to a 2012 report by the World Class Cities Partnership.

Predominantly commuter schools University of Massachusetts Boston and Suffolk University both reported graduate retention rates of 76 percent for the class of 2005, found the World Class Cities Partnership.

Graduates of Northeastern University are also more likely to stay in the Boston area, in part because of the school’s cooperative learning program, the study found.

“A lot of the businesses try to establish relationships with students from these colleges even prior to them graduating,” said Alexa Manocchio, a Franklin native and Northeastern University graduate. “I was very confident with my degree from Northeastern that I could get an interview and a job in that field.”


But the area may still not have enough jobs, or opportunities for specific lines of work, to employ all the young adults who would wish to stay.

A reported 190,000 students received degrees in the Boston metropolitan area in 2011, with 153,000 obtaining a college diploma or higher. About 71,000 total job openings arise each year, and about a third of those openings require the skillset of a college graduate, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority and UMass Donahue Institute report.

How many students graduate from area schools?
Number of 2011 graduates by type of degree
Degree Conferred City of Boston Boston Metropolitan Area
Certificate, less than one year 1,368 8,210
Certificate, at least one but less than two years 782 10,858
Associate's degree 3,328 15,600
Post-secondary award, certificate, or diploma (less than four years) 392 2,196
Bachelor's degree 32,670 79,358
Post-baccalaureate certificate 702 2,080
Master's degree 22,172 56,572
Post-Master's certificate 410 1,602
PhD 6,796 13,736
Total Degrees 68,620 190,212
DATA: Boston Redevelopment Authority, UMass Donahue Institute
Globe Staff

When Theresa Neumann was offered a job by Starwood Hotels and Resorts in New York following her graduation from Boston University’s School of Hospitality in May, she wavered. She had a boyfriend in Boston, and the majority of her friends were staying in the area. But the position in a hotel in Times Square was just too good to turn down, she said.

“At age 22, I wanted the best job to propel me into my career,” said Neumann. “For my specific industry, (New York) is the mecca.”

Of major US cities other than Boston, New York attracts the greatest share of Boston-area college graduates, followed by Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, according 2003 research by the Boston Consulting Group.

Alvaro Lima, the director of the research division at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, says that with Boston’s strong young adult workforce, there isn’t cause for concern when some graduates leave. Though not in they local workforce, they add to the Boston-area economy, says Lima.


“When you have global universities, schools like Harvard and MIT, you are recruiting people from all over the world,” said Lima, adding that higher education is an export industry. “Then, you throw them back out into the global economy.”

If Boston didn’t export a significant portion of its graduates, the city would see a glut of doctors, engineers, and politicians, not to mention nearly double its size in 10 years, he says.

“It’s a great thing for the city,” said Lima. “[The area] charges lots of money to educate students here, and then exports them to the world. Then, [alumni] send checks back to their universities.”

For graduates staying or leaving the area, jobs were a deciding factor.

Kamaria Moore, originally of Dorchester, decided to move back to Boston when she graduated from Clark University in Worcester in 2007.

“I like the professional opportunities I have here,” said Moore, 29, who currently lives in Quincy and works in the social work field. “I like the resources available to the people I work with here because that’s not always true in other places.”

About 76 percent of graduates who call Boston their hometown stayed in the area following graduation, compared to 42 percent who came from elsewhere, according to the Boston Consulting Group.


Despite not growing up in Boston, MIT graduate Anika Gupta said a job opportunity and a network of friends who planned to stay in the area influenced her decision to stay here following graduation last May.

“I work in an industry where I could have chosen different offices around the country,” said Gupta, 22, who works as a management consultant. “I made the decision to stay in Boston based on these other factors.”

Finally, not all graduates who leave, leave permanently. Brian Smith grew up in nearby Woburn. After graduating from Boston College in 2012, he left the area to pursue a sports communications internship program, first in Colorado and then in Michigan. After two years away, he got the opportunity to return to the Boston area to work for Hockey East.

“I wanted to work myself back, but I knew to do that I had to leave,” said Smith. “I had to go out and experience other things.”

Catherine Cloutier can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @cmcloutier.