Edward L. Glaeser

Keeping the best minds local

By Edward L. Glaeser
July 1, 2010

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MASSACHUSETTS’ GREATEST natural resource is its stock of 535,000 college and graduate school students. Human capital brings the ideas and entrepreneurship needed for regional success, yet too many of our students leave, including the entrepreneurs who created Facebook. Retaining talent requires us to fight the regulations that make entrepreneurship too rare and housing too expensive, but the state should also aim at winning students’ hearts while they are still in school.

Skills predict urban success. Across metropolitan areas, an extra 5 percentage points of the adult population with college degrees in 1970 has resulted in an 8 percent more population growth and a 4 percent more income growth. Yet the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Alicia Sasser found that 29.5 percent of New England’s college graduates left the region within a year of graduation, the highest out-migration rate in the country. That exodus reflects our schools’ aim of educating the world, but the state not retaining the graduates.

Connecting students to our region requires a response to the good, bad, and ugly sides of college life. I see a remarkable number of college students with a profound passion for doing good, whether working in shelters or tutoring children. They have time and are looking for meaning in life, and leveraging that can both help the Commonwealth and bind college students to the state.

A statewide public service organization — a Bay State Service Corps — could provide meaningful altruistic activities for college students and connect them with local leaders and the larger community. For six years, I’ve helped oversee the Rappaport Institute’s summer fellows program, which pays and assists graduate students to serve the region.

I’ve watched the fellows’ work contribute to public agencies, build their skills and create a bond with Greater Boston. Providing thousands of college students with ways to serve the state could produce an altruistic army today and a steady supply of future leaders.

The ugly part of college life is the misbehavior that can come from the emotional effervescence of youth. Not for nothing are 37.5 percent of America’s resolved murders committed by males between 17 and 24. College students aren’t usually killers, but they also have uncontrolled energy which leads them to annoy their neighbors with less than perfectly polite recreation.

Now I’m no expert on fun, but I am sure that the state can do more to make nocturnal pursuits less harmful and more entertaining by focusing on transportation and concentration. Bringing people together in entertainment districts can make safety more enforceable and nightlife more enjoyable, since the real point is to meet people anyway.

But concentrating enjoyment is only possible when transportation works well. The T’s night owl service stopped years ago. A combined strategy of rethinking entertainment regulation and nighttime transportation, perhaps trying to use liquor license fees to keep buses running later, could help make Massachusetts more fun and safe.

The high cost of housing is the bad part of college life. Dormitories can be more expensive than apartments, but undergraduates who choose to live in normal neighborhoods can create plenty of conflict with other residents. The natural solution is to build more dedicated college space, but that’s financially impossible for many educational institutions.

One vision is to explore private interest in building a student-city somewhere in Greater Boston. Would a consortium of private developers and colleges be interested in erecting large amounts of dormitory space if they could also put in connected retail space and bypass local land use controls? If a collection of builders were willing to deliver dormitories, then they would also have an incentive to make the experience pleasant. A collective student-city would give students a sense of place and lead to more regional identity.

Massachusetts has survived over centuries largely because skilled people wanted to stay here. Our continued success depends upon students continuing to fall in love with the state. The state can help by strengthening students’ opportunities to serve and have fun, and by making it easier to creatively build student housing.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

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