Baltimore attracts college students, but majority don't plan to stay here

City struggles to retain graduates

July 21, 2006|By GADI DECHTER | GADI DECHTER,SUN REPORTER

After downing a shot at a new upscale bar in Charles Village, David Yaron explained his decision to return to his native Philadelphia when he completes his bachelor's degree in neuroscience next year.

Baltimore has "too many scary parts," said Yaron, a 21-year-old rising senior at the Johns Hopkins University. "Baltimore is a good in-between city, but I think people are just passing through here."

If he follows through on his plans, Yaron will join thousands of students who come to Baltimore for an education and then take their newly acquired knowledge and skills elsewhere.

Only 32 percent of Baltimore-area college students intend to live and work in the region after they complete coursework, according to a new survey being released today.

The online poll of 3,200 students was conducted in February and March by the Baltimore Collegetown Network, a consortium of 15 area schools of higher education whose mission is to encourage student-city bonding.

The "brain-drain" phenomenon concerns higher-education officials and civic boosters who say that Baltimore needs the energy, passion and excitement that young, well-educated adults can provide.

"We don't want to be an exporter of talent," said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "We want to make sure that they become part of the fabric of our region."

But Baltimore does not have a national reputation as a prime destination for recent graduates.

Another recent survey conducted by a national civic-business alliance found that two-thirds of college-educated people ages 25 to 34 say they will first decide where to live, then look for a job there. The online poll asked respondents to identify cities they perceived as desirable.

New York City was No. 1, Boston came in at 8, and Philadelphia was 14.

Baltimore did not crack the Top 20.

The general perception of Baltimore by college students is "very negative, and I stress the `very,'" said Alex Nisichenko, 21, another Hopkins senior taking in the scene at the new Den bar. "Which is unfortunate, because there is opportunity here."

Nisichenko is an aspiring entrepreneur from New York City and said he plans to stay in town after graduating next year.

"And that opportunity is directly derived from the fact that so few people stay here," said Nisichenko, who figures there will be less competition for his plans to make money from emerging technologies hatched at area research labs.

Nisichenko might not be alone in his optimism.

This year's measure of student affinity to Baltimore represents a more than 50 percent improvement since 2003, when 19 percent of respondents to a similar online poll said they would "definitely" or "likely" settle down in the area.

"That is a pretty significant jump in three years," said Todd Hoffman, president of Boston-based consulting firm Collegia Inc., which helps cities form regional alliances like the one here.

Maryland Labor Secretary James D. Fielder Jr. also found reason to rejoice in the survey results, saying it indicated that the state's improving economic condition was being recognized by the "best and brightest."

The Greater Baltimore Committee's Fry agreed: "I think what the survey results reflect is a recognition by young students of the tremendous opportunities and the developing economy that are occurring in the Greater Baltimore region," he said.

But despite improvement, Baltimore likely still lags behind East Coast cities like Philadelphia and Boston in turning students, particularly non-native students, into local professionals, Hoffman said.

Hoffman downplayed the importance of measuring students' inclination toward where they will live after graduation.

"What a student says they're going to do isn't always what they end up doing," he said. "So this figure is not as important as the actual graduate retention numbers, but it's still a very important indicator of a positive direction that Baltimore is going in."

Still, Baltimore has a ways to go. "My guess," he said, "is that Baltimore is still far better at attracting young people to its colleges than it is at attracting young graduates to its businesses."

At The Den the, there was at least one more would-be Baltimorean in the room.

Waitress and native New Yorker Ariel Schneider, 21, said she would "definitely" remain in Baltimore after graduating from Hopkins in 2007. Unlike her friends, however, Schneider was not planning a career in public policy or science; the classics and art history major plans to open a custom-cake bakery in the city, something she says she could hardly afford to do in Manhattan.

"Plus, all these new developments are being built, all these new houses," she said. "People are going to move in and need cakes for their housewarming parties."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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