The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Photo by Aaron Josephson.
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Photo by Aaron Josephson.

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This is the first of a two-part series. Read part two: In some high-demand fields, most Virginia graduates leave the state.

The school in Charlottesville may be known as the University of Virginia but in some ways it might more properly be called the University of Future Non-Virginians.

That’s because 10 years after they get their diplomas, most University of Virginia graduates no longer live in the state, according to data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

That school is not alone; it just has the easiest name by which to make this point: At 14 of Virginia’s four-year schools, most graduates have left the state within a decade of graduation. Eleven of those, though, are private schools whose incoming classes often have a higher percentage of out-of-state students to begin with, and whose programs obviously aren’t supported by tax dollars. (Those schools: Christendom College, Hampton University, Liberty University, Marymount University, Randolph College, Regent University, Roanoke College, Southern Virginia University, Sweet Briar College, the University of Richmond, Washington & Lee University). Three public schools, though, also see most of their graduates leave the state: the University of Virginia, Virginia Military Institute and the College of William & Mary.

Three other schools see exactly half their graduates leave the state within 10 years. Two are private schools: Eastern Mennonite University and Shenandoah University. One is public: Virginia Tech.

Now, before anyone starts clamoring to yank state funding from these schools, let’s calm down and think about the context: Those state-supported schools are some of the most prestigious in the country. You’d expect those graduates to be in-demand in the marketplace – and they apparently are. This is a glass half full, glass half empty moment: You can argue that those schools are failing to produce enough Virginia workers. Or you can argue that those schools are doing such a good job of educating students that those graduates are sought after around the country. Maybe these figures are a success story.

Still, they do factor into an issue that Gov. Glenn Youngkin has raised almost every time he’s given a speech on the state’s economy: More people are moving out of the state than into the state, and that’s not good. In particular, he’s warned that Virginia is now exporting more college graduates than it’s importing, which isn’t good, either, in a knowledge-based economy. This data from SCHEV helps us narrow down just who’s moving out.

Before we go further, here are the caveats – and there are always caveats when dealing with data. This data is current through 2018; there’s often a lag time when dealing with data. Here’s how SCHEV compiled it: “These data were produced by matching the records of graduates from 2007-08 through 2017-18 and obtaining addresses through AlumniFinder in December of 2018. The data are then matched against Unemployment Insurance Wage records (quarterly earnings reported to the Commonwealth), Unemployment Insurance Benefits records, and college/university enrollment records reported to SCHEV. The data represent our best estimate of how many graduates were living or working in Virginia in 2018.” The biggest caveat is this: There are no records available for 24% of all graduates. Some of those graduates are probably still in the state, but we can only deal with the data we have. Cue the old saying: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good – and if you’re a data nerd, this is good data. It helps pose some statewide policy questions, and some more regional policy questions, as well.

First, let’s look at the big picture:

  • I mentioned that public school graduates are more likely to stay in state than private school graduates. Here are the numbers. Within a decade of graduation, 58% of public school graduates are still in the state. For private schools, the figure is 37%. These figures give us a baseline to work with because then we can look at which schools overperformed or underperformed in terms of producing Virginia workers – if (and this is a big if) you consider this a performance issue.

Second, let’s hit some outliers, which are always interesting:

  • The school whose graduates are most likely to leave the state is Washington & Lee. Within a decade, only 16% of its graduates remain in Virginia.
  • Among those three public schools who see most of their graduates leave, the retention rate runs like this: At William and Mary, 43% of graduates are still in the state 10 years later. At the University of Virginia, the rate is 41%. Virginia Military Institute has only 35% of graduates stick around. Of course, many VMI grads enter the military, so you have to factor that in.
  • The school where graduates are most likely to stay in the state is Longwood University, a public school: 80% of its graduates are still in Virginia a decade later.

Third, let’s slice the data a different way. Whether at public schools or private schools, the trend is always the same. Most in-state students stay in state after graduation (70% for public schools, 72% for private schools) and most out-of-state students go back out of state after graduation (20% of out-of-state students at public schools stick around, 13% at private schools do). By that measure, state schools are a bit more “sticky” for out-of-state students. They pay higher tuition, so help a school’s bottom line, and if we can retain a percentage of them, maybe that’s all to the good. What really influences the overall retention rate is the mix of in-state vs. out-of-state. Public schools tend to have higher overall retention rates because they have a bigger percentage of in-state students; private schools tend to have lower retention rates because they have a bigger percentage of out-of-state students.

Let’s look then at which schools do the best job keeping in-state students and which ones do the best job keeping out-of-state students.

Here the public/private distinction tends to melt away. The school whose in-state students are most likely to stick around is Bluefield University – 88% of its in-state graduates are still here a decade later. The school where in-state students are most likely to move away: Southern Virginia University, at 41%. So there we have private schools on opposite ends of the spectrum.

As for out-of-state students: The school whose out-of-state students are most likely to stay is Christopher Newport University – 34%. On the low end: Hollins University – 8%.

Now we turn to the policy side of things. If Youngkin wants to reverse Virginia’s out-migration trends (and he does), then this SCHEV database points the way to where to look. Now we know whose graduates are most likely to stay in state and whose graduates aren’t. For instance, Hampton University is one of the schools with a low retention rate – only 29% of its graduates stay in the state. That’s in marked contrast to Virginia’s other historically Black colleges and universities: At Norfolk State the figure is 66%, at Virginia State, 61%.

It’s easier for me to visualize this in terms of the Blacksburg-Roanoke-Lynchburg metroplex. The Roanoke Regional Partnership economic development group has touted how “the region has a higher concentration of undergraduates per capita than the Boston-Cambridge, San Francisco-Oakland, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill or Austin areas” and has made it a specific goal to increase recruitment of college graduates. This SCHEV data shows anew just how many of those graduates are slipping past us.

At Radford, 71% of graduates are staying in state (we can’t say how many specifically are staying in the region, just in state).

At Virginia Tech, the figure is 50%.

At the two colleges in the Roanoke Valley, most students are simply passing through. At Roanoke College, 45% of graduates are staying in Virginia; at Hollins University, 41% are. It would seem the region might want to concentrate on those places and make the case for more of those graduates to stay. Or you can argue that we should focus on the places where students are already predisposed to stay in-state. In that case, Ferrum College’s 74% in-state retention rate is well above the state average.

Lynchburg faces a particular challenge – or maybe has a particular opportunity. It’s one of the youngest cities in the state, a reflection of all those college students. But most are skipping the state after graduation.

At Liberty, the biggest of the Hill City’s colleges, only 26% of graduates are still in Virginia 10 years after graduation. At Randolph College, the figure is 38%. At Sweet Briar College, 39%. Meanwhile, at the University of Lynchburg, the 10-year retention rate is 61%. If Lynchburg wants more college graduates, should it focus on persuading more Liberty/Randolph/Sweet Briar graduates to stay in town?

The world, though, is a complicated place. Graduates move out of state for lots of reasons. Sometimes love is a factor – and while Virginia Is For Lovers, there’s not much we can do if love compels someone to move elsewhere. But money can be a factor, too. SCHEV has data on that, too (the money part, not the love part). I’ll look at that tomorrow.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.