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If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home by Now: Combating brain drain in the Ocean State

Rhode Island has yet to shake the common assumption that while the state is a great place to study (and visit), it is a bad place to remain. Commonly referred to as the educational “brain drain” — the problem of thousands of college graduates setting sail for greener pastures the moment they are handed their diploma — this notion has remained a sticky cliche in conversations about the state’s future. As RI struggles to recover from high unemployment and economic stagnation, the question arises: Is Rhode Island losing its minds?

Rhode Island Commission on Postsecondary Education commissioner Shannon Gilkey said that many people misunderstand the brain drain debate. Often, students came to the state to study with no plans to stay. The trick is to convince them to take a closer look at what Rhode Island has to offer.

“It’s a destination state for higher education,” said Gilkey. “We must hang onto that talent by making sure it is affordable for young people to live here. You have to make the state an attractive place to stay. That, to me, is improving housing and training opportunities. We know that employers are looking for talent right now. So, it’s a holistic approach.”

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Gilkey added that the twin scourges of housing shortages and high student debt are often the catalyst for graduates leaving the state. But there are initiatives underway, such as the R.I. Promise free community college program, to help combat at least one of those problems. 

Another program is the Wavemaker Fellowship, which awards graduates working in STEM and design jobs in Rhode Island with a refundable tax credit that can cover student loan payments up to $6,000 per year for up to four years, and the Ocean State Grad Grant pays up to $7,000 of a recent college graduate’s home down payment. 

In 2015, responding to a flood of negative media coverage depicting millennials as self-involved loafers, Travis Escobar founded Millennial RI, an advocacy group that works to both combat the misguided stereotype and foster networking opportunities for his generation. They are active in Smith Hill politics and host meet-ups and workshops throughout Providence, to shore up progressive initiatives that encourages young people to, as they put it, “Choose R.I.”

Escobar says he finds the belief that his home state is undesirable to young professionals too simplistic. At the group’s end-of-summer event held on the rooftop of the Graduate hotel, he asked how many attendees had chosen Rhode Island from afar. “The majority of individuals were from out of state,” he said. “So that tells you something.”

Escobar senses a progressive push that could bring fresher voices into the political and economic fold, so long as activists stay vigilant. Issues like housing must be dealt with. However, some of the demand stems from more young people making the move to Providence and surrounding urban areas.

“More people are actively looking to stay in Rhode Island. The secret of how attractive this place is certainly not a secret anymore,” he said. 

After graduating from Rhode Island College in 2013, Escobar briefly considered moving. But his foray into local activism cemented his shoes in li’l Rhody.

“I thought it might be cool to live in New York City for a year,” he said. “But I found an opportunity here. There were so many great experiences. I found our community was a community of helpers. So that was something that definitely anchored me.”

And people should remember that one does not need to relocate to larger metropolitan areas to reach their goals.

“Like any place you live, it’s what you make of the location you are in,” he said. “Rhode Island is doing better. State leaders and corporations are more aware of the issues. But we can never lose focus on what we are doing to prepare future generations to have success in our state.”

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