Retaining students after they get an education from one of the Boston area’s incredible colleges or universities is viewed by many (including us) as being a key to Boston’s continued success in the 21st century economy. The case everyone points to, especially lately, is that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Given the wild, ridiculous, absurd success of Facebook, local business leaders and politicians salivate over what could have been if Facebook had stayed closer to its roots across the Charles.
The problem with thinking like this is it assumes the Facebook we know and love today would look exactly the same if it had stayed here. Would Facebook be on the verge of a $100 billion IPO if it had stayed put in Cambridge or Boston? Maybe, maybe not. It’s impossible to know.
I think that uncertainty is in part what’s behind a recent article from BostInno.com contributor Walter Frick. Frick’s main point is that even if a student comes to Boston, gets an education, and then leaves right after their graduation ceremony, Boston still benefits hugely from that student’s time in school. Higher education employs thousands of people across the state and generates trillions of dollars in wages. If we lose some folks to New York or Silicon Valley, so be it. The region still saw some benefit from their time here.
I think what can get overlooked by this point of view is that the issue of talent retention isn’t just about holding on to the next Mark Zuckerberg; tt’s about the desirability of a city.
We should be making Boston a city that people want to come to for myriad reasons, not just for an education. We will never retain 100% of the students who come to Boston, but their decision to leave should never be based on Boston lacking in any area, whether that be culture, business, housing, nightlife, transportation, or any other defining characteristic of a city.
Also, if we don’t focus on keeping people after college, then I think we’ll see our culture and nightlife continue to cater towards the college-age demographic and see Boston become more and more just a college town. I’d hate to see a Boston without students, but I’d love to see a Boston that had a better reputation for cultural and entertainment amenities geared to a wider demographic. Boston’s character and history are worthless if our only export becomes a degree.
I agree that we shouldn’t think of a talent retention rate of anything less than 100% as a failure, but there is more to the picture of talent retention than just losing talented, educated people. Talent retention speaks to the desirability of a city, and in that lens it becomes more a conversation about keeping people of all ages coming to the city and wanting to stay once they are here.
– Nick Downing, Future Boston Research Coordinator