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‘Retain Alabama’ effort aims to sell students on homegrown opportunities

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama college students rank cost of living, job opportunities and salaries as key factors in deciding where they’ll live after graduation and about 43% of them are undecided about staying in Alabama, according to a recent survey.

About 33% of public university students planned to stay in the state, while 23% did not.

The survey is part of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education’s effort to keep more graduates in the state.

“That 43% is really the target for the Retain Alabama Initiative, to help convince those students that yes, they should stay in Alabama,” said Bryn Bakoyéma, a visiting research associate at the ACHE, at a recent board meeting.

When it comes to retaining its own graduates, Alabama has the third worst rate in the country, ACHE Executive Director Jim Purcell said. A 2020 Alabama Commission on Higher Education Employment Outcomes Report showed that five years after they graduated in 2013, 51% of Alabama public university bachelor’s degree recipients were employed in the state.

About 40% of Alabama resident students are undecided about where they may go post-graduation. And 48% of the “maybes” are getting STEM-related degrees. Alabama leaders want very much to keep those students here as they’re critical to the economy’s growth. 

“It is incredibly important that we try to retain them,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said this week. Orr, chair of the Senate education budget committee, and other legislative leaders last year discussed with Purcell strategizing graduate retainment.

The students most likely to stay were education and health science majors.

Out-of-state student enrollment has increased in recent years and Bakoyéma said the state has an opportunity to target and keep more of those students. That includes doing a better job of showing students salary and career opportunities. 

The 2022 education budget includes $800,000 for the Retain Alabama Initiative, split between ACHE and the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama to focus on connecting college students with industry in the state, particularly in STEM and advanced manufacturing sectors.

The recent survey of about 8,200 students at the 14 schools asked about their most favorable impressions of Alabama. The top responses were the natural environment and access to outdoor activities.

Their most negative impressions: Alabama’s political environment, social awareness environment, salaries and acceptance towards people of diverse backgrounds.

Bakoyéma said the resident and non-resident students all had the same low impressions on the bottom four items.

“It wasn’t just the non-residents that think bad about Alabama, the Alabama residents felt the exact same way,” she said.

White students were more likely to say they were staying in the state.

Orr said whether it’s a Texas native at the University or Alabama or a resident student at Auburn who thinks they need to move to Atlanta or Charlotte for higher wages, the state is losing too much of its educational investment and knowledge capital of potential workforce and economic leaders.

“We need to have an environment that creates jobs and by the same token keeps these students who may become entrepreneurs or start their own businesses,” Orr said.

Recommendations presented to the ACHE board include:

  • Developing more work-related experiences in Alabama high schools, particularly related to STEM fields;
  • Promote the state, particularly for out-of-state students, to influence 43% that said they may stay;
  • Delve deeper into specifics students’ negative impressions of the state and how to change them;
  • Four-year universities, in partnership with local and regional businesses, should increase exposure and outreach about career opportunities in Alabama to students before their senior year.

“We need to identify and systematically address the obstacles that discourage university graduates from starting their careers in Alabama,” Purcell said in a written statement. “Students are often not aware of the  career opportunities available to them in Alabama.”

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