Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

What the selectiveness of your college says about where you’re likely to move after.

Harvard graduate staring out at Manhattan skyline.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Joe Hall/Flickr CC and Lisa Larson-Walker.

It’s commencement season, and American college campuses everywhere are threaded with long, shining lines of hatchbacks loaded up to carry graduates to their new homes.

Taxis might have worked just as well: Studies show that the percentage of young, college-educated adults moving between states has fallen from 12.7 percent in 2005 to 10.4 percent in 2015, of a piece with the nation’s larger reluctance to move. Nearly 1 in 3 recent grads are moving in with mom, up from 1 in 5 in 2005. Those who do move out of state aren’t likely to move far.

A new project from the Wall Street Journal illustrates the trend. Using data from Emsi, a market-research firm, the paper built graphics showing how recent alumni from more than 400 research universities, liberal arts colleges, and NCAA Division I basketball competitors fan out to cities across the country.

But not to all cities equally. You’ve probably heard by now that U.S. cities are dramatically diverging in their percentage of college-educated residents. The percent of 25–34-year-olds—aka millennials—with a college degree is highest (at times crossing 50 percent) in most of the usual coastal culture capitals, as well as a few inland destinations like Madison, Wisconsin; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Denver. In the cities of California’s Central Valley and Central Florida, however, only about 1 in 5 millennials have college degrees.

Las Vegas and Washington provide another study in contrasts. In Sin City just 21 percent of millennials had completed college in 2015, according to a January Brookings report, one of the lowest rates in the nation. Only three colleges in the WSJ sample send more than 2 percent of alumni to Las Vegas. One of those, hometown UNLV, has more than half its young alumni stick around. Washington, by comparison—which has one of America’s highest rates of college attainment—pulls in more than 2 percent of alumni from 218 different schools.

There’s a kind of mirror effect here happening between high-wage, high-rent cities and selective colleges. Graduates of Harvard College, for example, don’t by and large stay in Boston, but they do seem to all end up in the same cities. And that set of cities looks remarkably similar for pretty much any selective college you look at.

All this makes sense, intuitively: The most ambitious 22-year-olds are all going places where they can find high-paying jobs in influential industries. Selective colleges tend to pull students from all over the country to begin with. Some may move back to their hometowns. Others may be comfortably mobile. Those grads are also more than likely well-off, with a little money to support a big move, high rent, or an unpaid internship in a big city. Their world is the one where geography matters least.

“There seem to be two different migrations going on,” observed Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall and author of a January paper on interstate migration of young graduates. “The selective schools seem to be sending a lot more graduates to the coast, and the less selective schools seem to be sending graduates, when they go out of state, to the Sun Belt states.”

It’s not that big research universities that are easier to get into, like Oklahoma State or Texas A&M, aren’t sending kids to these high-gravity cities—but by and large their graduates are more likely to wind up moving nearby. For U.S. colleges, this pattern is the norm rather than the exception. More than half of recent University of Memphis grads stay in Memphis; more than half of Southern Methodist grads stay in Dallas.

All this is fuel for a familiar debate in state legislatures when it comes time to debate how much to fund higher education. Lower-tier universities often advertise the fact that their graduates wind up sticking around, while higher-tier universities counter that while they may send grads nationwide, they’re also magnets for smart people from other states.

As Douglas Webber, a professor at Temple, reminded me, there is yet another divide among young college graduates that helps explain different data sets—the one between older and younger millennials. High-cost cities may be raking in young college graduates who are so-called job-first movers, but at some point, housing costs may drive them away. Where do they go next? Probably to low-cost Sun Belt metros, just like their parents.

The Emsi data—which appears to show “creative class” cities hoovering up young co-eds—doesn’t always jibe with some big, long-term shifts underway between states. According to American Community Survey data compiled by Kelchen and Webber, college graduates between 2013 and 2015 were flowing out of the Midwest and the Northeast and into Washington state, Hawaii, California, Colorado, North Carolina, and Nevada. (Why Nevada? Likely because its low total number of graduates—the state had only 25,000 resident, Nevada-born graduates in 2010—translates any migration increases into bigger percentage gains.) In some places, like New York, highly educated immigrants make up for the loss of native-born grads.

The overriding trend, though, is that college graduates are moving to big cities. And what the states battling persistent, long-term brain drain of young graduates have in common—the bottom five are the Dakotas, West Virginia, Iowa, and Mississippi—is a lack of them. Dual-earner couples have a much easier time in big labor markets. They’re flocking, above all, to places where they exist.