Head count and the “brain gain”

Civic leaders have long battled the idea of “brain drain” in New Orleans. That is, the feared dynamic of the best-educated residents decamping for more promising opportunities in other cities and taking their earning power with them. A more recent study, however, has put New Orleans at the top of the heap for just the opposite trend: “brain gain.”

In a report dubbed “America’s Biggest Brain Magnets,” consultant and researcher Joel Kotkin calculated that New Orleans gained some 36,666 college graduates during the study period between 2007 and ’09, even as the overall population shrunk by 29 percent in the last decade, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. While the city’s large gain is likely due in some part to the return of residents displaced after Hurricane Katrina during that period, Kotkin says the urban core “appears to be somewhat more attractive to professionals than before Katrina.”

That finding is music to ears of local boosters and economic development leaders who have been making the case for post-Katrina New Orleans as a new hub for start-ups and entrepreneurial innovation.

“For a number of reasons – including above-average economic conditions throughout the national recession, the chance to contribute to the renewal of a great American city and our cultural vitality – college graduates have flocked here in recent years,” says Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO Inc., the regional economic development agency. “Now it’s our task as a business community to make a commitment to keep them here for the long term by ensuring job opportunities and a good quality of life.”

Kotkin’s study found that in addition to lower unemployment rates and higher job growth, a city’s affordability factor was an important part of attracting more college graduates.

“Rather than following a clear path to the world of the hip and cool, college graduates appear influenced by a more nuanced and complex series of factors in terms of their location,” he writes. “The college-educated, particularly in this tepid economy, are not immune to reality. They may want to go one place – for example, ever-alluring New York or sunny Los Angeles – but may soon find they can find neither a good job there nor an affordable place to live in order to stay there. Overall our analysis shows that many end up in places with lower housing prices.”

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