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By JonMarcus
BowlingGreen, Ohio
T
hree hands rise tentatively into the air from among
nine students in a lecture hall at Bowling Green State
University in rural northwest Ohio.
That’s the number of them—these three out of nine—who
say that they expect to stay in Ohio when they graduate.
“Too cold,” says one of the students who didn’t raise his
hand, as the others chuckle.
“Too boring,” pipes in another, provoking more giggles.
“No jobs,” says a third, muchmore seriously, eliciting a
somber murmur of agreement.
Changing these students’ perception of Ohio, and Ohio’s
about them, is at the heart of one of the most high-stakes and
far-reaching reforms of public higher education in America—
more dramatic still for coming in a part of the country where
the economic recession is particularly severe, and at a time
when even healthier states are shrugging off huge budget cuts
to public universities and colleges.
Ohio’s governor, Democrat Ted Strickland, has bucked
the trend by making public higher education a financial and
political priority, on the grounds that educated graduates
and laboratory research with commercial potential are the
lynchpins of an economic comeback. And the universities
themselves—unusually independent of each other in Ohio,
and traditionally fiercely competitive—have slowly bowed to
the pragmatismof collaboration, steered by a chancellor who
is not shy about using new financial realities to prod them
into it (along with public scrutiny that risks embarrassing any
campuses that fail tomeet his goals).
“The University Systemof Ohio is going to be the model of
the 21st-century university system,” vowed the chancellor, Eric
Fingerhut, a former state senator and congressman who ran
against Strickland in the Democratic gubernatorial primary
and is now the point man on one of the governor’s most high-
profile issues.
It’s a tough job. Even though Ohio produces more
bachelor’s degrees per capita than the national average, it
ranks a distant 36thin the proportion of adults with at least
an associate’s degree, 35th in the proportion with a bachelor’s
degree or higher, and 26th in the proportion with a graduate
degree. That’s because, like the students in that Bowling Green
lecture hall, nearly two-thirds of graduates—and half of those
with graduate and professional degrees—leave the state.
“InMichigan, and I think it’s becoming true about Ohio,
the joke has always been that the biggest export is college
graduates,” said David Jackson, a political science professor at
Bowling Green. “Why do they leave? Because they need a job.”
Even before the current economic recession,
manufacturing-dependent Ohio lost 236,000 jobs between
2000 and 2007, the sharpest decline in any state since the
May 2010
Ohio’s Brain Drain
Reform of public higher education is intended to change perceptions and retain graduates
Great Depression. Only neighboringMichigan fared worse.
Since then, as the recession took hold, Ohio has seen another
13.5 percent of its manufacturing jobs disappear, compared to
the national average of 9.5 percent. Of the top ten American
cities with falling populations, three are in Ohio. By the time
Strickland took office, the resulting decline in tax revenue had
forced, among other things, years of double-digit increases in
public university tuition, which became the fourth highest in
America. Two-year tuition was the seventh highest.
But rather than having the worst possible timing for
their higher education strategy, which was
launched just weeks before the start of the
recession, Fingerhut and Stricklandmay
have had the best, since hard times have
provided an effective argument in Ohio to
drive support for public higher education:
unabashedly linking it to economic
prosperity.
“If you were trying to impose a system
like this in better economic times, it wouldn’t
be received as well,” said Ben Anthony,
student government president at Ohio State
University. “We wouldn’t particularly care
about brain drain. We wouldn’t need to.”
Students get it, Anthony said. “The
argument behind education has always been
that you’re going to get something out of it. If you put that in
economic terms, it’s more concrete. And I don’t see why they
shouldn’t make that argument, because it’s true.”
Yet it’s a connection universities left to their own devices
have often failed, or been reluctant, tomake. “There is an
Ohio State University, with its main campus in Columbus, is part of the University
System of Ohio, which was created in 2007 and includes 13 public universities, a
medical college, and 23 community colleges.
The universities in
Ohio—unusually
independent of each
other, and traditionally
fiercely competitive—
have slowly bowed to
the pragmatism of
collaboration.
Larry Hamill, Black Star, for CrossTalk