The mystery of Ogden’s vanishing college graduates

Tuesday , July 11, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

MICHAEL VAUGHAN, special to the Standard-Examiner

Many enjoy a tale of a mystery cracked by a top-notch detective. The fictional detectives created by Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander McCall Smith and dozens of other mystery writers have enthralled readers for decades.

My mind turned to a mystery a few weeks ago when I attended Weber State University’s April 2017 commencement ceremony. Weber State awarded degrees to more than 3,000 students. Since I began working at Weber State in 1981, the university has awarded more than 53,000 bachelor’s degrees and an additional 4,000 master’s degrees.

That is a remarkable accomplishment, so you may ask “Wherein lies the mystery?” The mystery is that the number of Ogden adults with a bachelor’s degree is largely stagnant. In fact, from 2014 to 2015, the most recent two-year period for which data are available, the number of Ogden residents, age 25 and older, with a bachelor’s degree actually fell from 10,846 to 10,367.

For Ogden residents 18 to 24 years old, those most likely to be college students or recent graduates, the proportion with a college degree dropped from 6.6 percent to 2.4 percent in the past five years. During the same time period, WSU awarded more than 11,000 bachelor’s degrees.

There are countless statistics that could be examined. Some of these suggest the number of college graduates in Ogden is increasing very slowly. Yet, virtually any examination of data from the past decade indicates the change in Ogden’s college graduates is falling far short of population growth.

WSU awards degrees to students from across the state, the nation and around the world. Clearly, there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between WSU’s degree production and Ogden’s educational attainment. At the same time, Ogden is a primary wellspring for Weber State students. Alumni from the 1970s and 1980s have told me that their Weber State graduating class bore a striking resemblance to their Ogden High graduating class. Currently, about 14 percent of WSU’s students come from Ogden; this is a higher proportion than that of any neighboring community.

On an annual basis, WSU awards roughly 350 degrees to students who originated from Ogden. Students hailing from Ogden high schools also choose to earn degrees from Brigham Young, Utah State, the University of Utah and many other colleges and universities. How do you reconcile these facts with the declining trend of educational attainment in Ogden?

In actuality, the answer to the mystery of the disappearing graduates is elementary. Over the past decade, thousands of young men and women who grew up in Ogden and earned college degrees have subsequently chosen to locate outside Ogden. Simply stated, Ogden is experiencing a brain drain, a term coined to describe the exodus of the most educated workers. Economists have studied brain drains for more than half a century. A consistent result is that brain drains don’t bode well for the economic future of regions that experience a loss of their best and brightest.

To some extent, the economic impact of Ogden’s brain drain is mitigated by the fact that many of the largest employers in Northern Utah are located in Ogden and are founded on “knowledge workers,” who must have a college degree. This group includes Intermountain Healthcare, Weber State University, Autoliv and Fresenius. These firms employ a great number of the community’s college graduates.

Is the quality of life in Ogden greatly diminished if a college graduate chooses to work in Ogden but live in Farmington or Fruit Heights or Salt Lake? Unfortunately, it is.

Ogden’s exodus of college graduates influences property values. Property values influence the quality of Ogden’s schools and the ability of the city to invest in infrastructure. School quality and infrastructure investments influence the choice of future college graduates of whether to live in Ogden or elsewhere. This creates a repeating cycle.

Other communities have grappled with the same problem, and some have developed innovative programs that could serve as models for Ogden. Baltimore has partnered with major employers to provide housing grants to employees who buy homes near their workplace. The grants are a match of city money and funds provided by employers such as Under Armour, Johns Hopkins Hospital and dozens of others. More than 30 cities in New Jersey participate in the “Live Where You Work” program that provides low-interest mortgage loans to buyers of homes in the same town in which they work. The University of Kentucky offers forgivable loans to employees who purchase homes near campus.

These programs contribute to the community’s economy, but the programs also benefit employers. Numerous studies have found that workers who live near their workplace are more productive, healthier and happier. For these reasons, Facebook offers employees who live nears its Silicon Valley campus an annual bonus of $10,000.

Are program such as these the answer to Ogden’s brain drain? Maybe, maybe not. There may be programs better suited for Ogden. The important fact is that Ogden is experiencing an exodus of college educated workers. The mystery is easy to explain, but the problem is far from solved.

Dr. Michael Vaughan is a Weber State University economics professor and directs the Center for the Study of Poverty & Inequality. Email: mvaughan@weber.edu

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