How Colleges Can Help Solve America’s Crisis Of Geographic Mobility

Written by: Ryan Craig

Published in: Forbes

As you read this, I am roaming around my college reunion like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. All my roommates are here, you see, and their pranks continue to haunt me: grains of rice under my bedsheets; removing all my lightbulbs; jumping into the shower while my back was turned and asking me to pass the soap; sprinkling Country Time Lemonade powder over the top of the toilet stall; pats of butter lobbed ever so gently onto my skylight (amazingly, not even a New England spring could wash away that butter); and hiding under my bed until I fell asleep, then grabbing my leg. That last one almost ended in violence.

The capstone occurred one night while I was out playing intramural hockey. With the walk to the rink and back, carting my goalie pads, my roommates knew they had a good two hours. Their ambition would require all that time. They entered my locked room through the butter-smeared skylight, disassembled my university-provided furniture, and moved every single item out of the room into storage. Then they conscientiously locked my door and exited via the skylight. When I returned to the suite, inserted the key to my now-vacant room and opened the door, I’m told my screams of “You idiots!” carried all the way to Crown Street.

It took at least an hour for them to put everything back. Even short moves are not easy, as demonstrated by the fact that Americans are moving far less than they used to. After World War II, about 20% of us moved every year. Today it’s less than 10%. Longer moves are even harder. Interstate moves and the percentage of Americans who move for a new job have been falling steadily since the 1980s. Thirty years ago, 30%+ of job seekers relocated for a new position. Now it’s about 10%.

Moving is built into America’s national fabric (“Go West, young man” and all that, although I suppose there’s bound to be a drop when the default shifts to buying property from willing sellers as opposed to stealing it from Native Americans). Nevertheless, our economic growth has depended a great deal on workers relocating to fast-growing regions.

Geographic immobility has many causes. There’s the high cost of housing (and limited supply) in our most dynamic cities brought on by policies that privilege homeowners and geographic incumbents at the expense of newcomers. Another is state occupational licensure – a topic I just wrote about – as well as lack of portability of pensions and benefits for government workers. But when we talk about Appalachia and other regions with slow-to-no growth and less hope than despair, and the lazy (but all too human) tendency to externalize one’s own economic plight by lashing out at others, America’s crisis of immobility extends from the economic realm to the social and political.

Historically, government efforts to address these imbalances have focused on attracting employers and employment to less-developed regions. Such economic development programs are hit or miss. Under the leadership of Rhode Island’s innovative Governor Gina Raimondo, the Ocean State has drawn in large employers like Infosys with tax credits of up to $7,500 per job per year. But for every Infosys, there’s an Amazon making economic demands that may not make sense. Few employers seek to open up shop in a less dynamic region. To do so, they’ll extract their pound of flesh and will probably need that pound annually for the foreseeable future (see e.g., NFL teams demanding publicly subsidized stadiums). In Rhode Island’s case, the tax credits extend for ten years, which makes sense, but in many cases the incentives produce a net loss for the needy state or region. And no public subsidies will ever convince the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland-Las Vegas Raiders to relocate to West Virginia.

Higher education’s role in these communities hasn’t differed much from its role in dynamic markets: provide postsecondary programs and pathways to employment to local residents. But what if there aren’t jobs in the community. Where there are people, there are always some jobs: retail, healthcare, automotive repair. But what if there aren’t enough, or not in high-growth sectors? In such regions, it makes little sense to offer the same mindless recitation of run-of-the-mill academic programs, hoping and praying that graduates will find sufficiently remunerable employment.

Equally, it makes little sense to launch new programs for jobs that aren’t there today and are too expensive to lure. Last week the New York Times published an investigation of the nonprofit coding bootcamp Mined Mines, which received a $1.5M grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to open up in hard-luck West Virginia coal mining towns. According to the Times, almost no one who signed up for Mined Mines is working in programming now, and over two dozen former students are suing the program for fraud. They might have known. If someone is promising thousands of coding jobs in Appalachia, it’s probably a fraud.

A better approach is to develop programs in partnership with employers for newly created jobs. But these bespoke programs fail to scale. In my recent book, A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to CollegeI noted a bespoke training effort by University of Virginia’s College at Wise, a campus located in the state’s southwest corner, near the Kentucky border. After a division of Frontier Communications decided to open a new customer care center that would create 500 new jobs in Wise, UVa-Wise launched a free last-mile training bootcamp (paid for by the local workforce development board) to train local workers. I checked in with the university last week. While employment at the call center has grown, Frontier has managed to attract experienced employees. So while UVa-Wise stands ready to run this program again, it appears to have been a one-off.

Higher education does have an important role to play in addressing America’s geographic imbalances: start prioritizing geographic mobility over immobility. Earlier this month, Inside Higher Education profiled a new program launched by Wichita technical college WSU Tech to cover relocation and housing expenses for students who move from more than 50 miles away. The program was driven by a shortage of skilled workers in the aviation manufacturing sector in and around Wichita.

Students relocating from Appalachia to booming Wichita are likely to find jobs, but nothing is guaranteed. Picking up and moving across the country is hard, and the hardest part is the uncertain employment outcome. Towering over the uncertainty of where you’ll live, who you’ll know, and how to get around, is the uncertainty of how you’ll support yourself. Colleges and universities could help solve our crisis of immobility with models that guarantee jobs once graduates have relocated. West Virginia University recently partnered with Revature, a technology talent company that hires graduates from day one and trains them on campus. While WVU hopes graduates will be placed with Revature clients locally, there aren’t many. Most will relocate to a booming metropolitan area with a guaranteed job at a Revature client.

Job guarantees are also at the heart of Talent Path, a new technology training program that has partnered with University of Houston, University of Maryland University College, Kennesaw State University, and Santa Monica College. (Disclaimer: I am an investor in Talent Path’s parent company, Genuent.) Will Dale attended Tulane University where he majored in Political Science. After graduating, he moved back home and was underemployed, working in retail for a year. While he had thought about moving to Los Angeles, the cost and risk were too high until he found Talent Path. Talent Path hires graduates and trains them, guaranteeing they’ll be placed at a local client. “The biggest factor in deciding to relocate to Southern California was knowing that I would have a job,” said Will. “The job guarantee at the end was the biggest thing for me.”

I’m a big believer in not letting the best be the enemy of the good. The best would be for Will to find a great job close to home and for WVU graduates to code in Appalachia. The best would be to revitalize these areas, like Columbus and Nashville have done. But employers will do what employers do; if there is a nirvana, I’m pretty sure there aren’t employers there. If there aren’t good jobs in a region today, we need to be realistic about the fact that there may not be tomorrow (at least not at a scale sufficient to address unsustainable geographic imbalances).

Higher education institutions in less-developed communities should stop hoping and promoting (often false) hope. An acceptable and good outcome would be to help students and job seekers relocate and return America to an era of greater mobility. Colleges and universities in slow-growth regions can push talent through partnerships with intermediaries like Talent Path and Revature that have the requisite employer connectivity to make employment guarantees upon relocation. Contrariwise, institutions in booming cities can pull talent with relocation incentives.

America’s crisis of immobility is an economic problem that has become a potentially existential social and political problem. And while subsidizing jobs in troubled communities is rarely a good use of public money (although an understandable impulse), spending money to subsidize postsecondary programs where there aren’t jobs, and with no clear talent mobility strategy, is as crazy as my roommates spending two hours moving everything out of my room.

Colleges and universities should stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution. They were once an engine of social and economic mobility. Even if the engine is sputtering or stopped, by adopting new push or pull strategies American higher education can still become a much needed engine of geographic mobility.

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