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‘Retain Alabama’ effort looks to keep college grads home

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Knowing that nearly half of Alabama’s public university bachelor’s degree earners are working in other states five years after they graduate, state leaders are funding more efforts to keep that talent pool at home.

In the 2022 state education budget, lawmakers allocated $800,000 for a new “Retain Alabama” initiative to introduce college students to opportunities for them in the Yellowhammer state.

“Our state has been a low-growth state and we have to do all we can to retain that knowledge capital that we’re losing every year when they leave,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, chairman of the Senate education budget committee.

The earmark was prompted by the 2020 Alabama Commission on Higher Education Employment Outcomes Report, the first statewide study of how Alabama graduates, from certificate holders to those with doctoral degrees, are faring in the workforce.

It showed that five years after they graduated in 2013, 51% of Alabama public university bachelor’s degree recipients were employed in the state.

“That was problematic,” ACHE Executive Director Jim Purcell told Alabama Daily News recently. “Think about trying to build an economy based on half of your graduates.”

That retention rate is lower for STEM graduates, who are very important long-term for the state’s economy, Purcell said. He noted that retention for associate’s degree holders is higher, about 70%.

Orr said that some schools, including the University of Alabama, have significant out-of-state student populations.

“Of course, they pay more as an out-of-state student, but they’re using our education system,” Orr said. “How do we get them to plug into our state or choose to reside in our state after graduation? How do we show them the opportunities that are available to them?”

Next year’s $7.6 billion education budget includes nearly $2 billion for higher education. Rep. Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, chairman of the House education budget committee, said the state puts significant resources toward educating college and university students, but sees thousands of them leave each year.

“I think from an economic development standpoint, as it relates to the short-, medium- and long-term future of our state, for us to be prosperous and competitive we have to find ways to ensure that there are attractive career opportunities for Alabama college graduates here in the state,” Poole said.

Besides wanting Alabama’s young residents to see a future in the state, changing technologies will increase the demand for degreed workers, Poole said. Meanwhile, data shows that college graduates have a positive economic impact on the communities they live in, he said.

The $800,000 allocation is being split between ACHE and the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. Greg Barker, president of the Birmingham-based non-profit, said his organization will focus on connecting college students with industry in the state, particularly in STEM and advanced manufacturing sectors.

“Alabama colleges and universities are producing top-flight students, that’s the great news,” Barker said. “But a lot of those top-flight students are going outside the state for employment opportunities. We know there are opportunities in Alabama and perhaps they don’t know about them.”

To be successful, Barker said those connections can’t wait until the student has a diploma in hand. Internship and co-op opportunities are key to that exposure, he said.

“We’re about the matches,” Barker said. “Matching career opportunities with talented students.”

Showing students parts of the state and “livability” of communities they aren’t familiar with will also be part of Retain Alabama.

“We want them to understand the attributes of the quality of life all over the state,” Barker said.

Orr said the success of the program will be judged by increased percentages of graduates staying here.

“It’s not just growth for growth’s sake, but these are skilled individuals in science, engineering and math that can help the state in numerous ways,” Orr said.

Those 2013 bachelor’s degree holders employed in Alabama were earning $48,215 on average five years after graduation. Engineering ranked first in average salaries among 2013 bachelor’s degree recipients at $74,191, followed by graduates of computer and information sciences at $65,792, engineering technologies at $59,796, health professions at $54,832, and business, management and marketing at $54,547.

The outcomes report confirmed that non-resident students are not likely to stay in Alabama once they’ve gotten their degrees. Of 7,311 out-of-state 2017 bachelor’s degree recipients, only 20% were employed in the state a year later. That’s compared to 70% of 16,454 Alabama resident graduates.

Five years after graduation, 62% of the 2013 bachelor’s degree recipients originally from Alabama were employed in the state.

Retain Alabama isn’t the only initiative state-funded program aimed at keeping educated young professionals in the state. Last year lawmakers allocated $240,000 from the state education budget for the Best and Brightest Initiative that repays student loan debt up to $15,000 over five years.

The program allocated $120,000 each for Decatur and Marengo County. It requires:

  • The recipient have a STEM degree from an Alabama four-year institution;
  • Be a new resident of either Decatur or Marengo County;
  • A recipient receives $3,000 a year for up to five years.

The program has existed in Decatur for several years in an effort to grow the city’s population of young professionals. And a recent economic impact study showed that recipients pay more in local taxes, including property and sales tax, than they receive through the incentive.

“It’s paid off in Decatur’s case in tax dollars that a person brings when you get them to live in your community,” Orr said.

This year, lawmakers put $270,000 toward the Best and Brightest Initiative.

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