For a state that has a population as old as Maine, retaining recent college graduates is a serious concern. It has profound implications for workforce development, our state and municipal revenue streams, as well as the overall vitality of communities. The latest numbers suggest troubling population declines across the state.
Last summer, I approached Bangor city councilors Gibran Graham and Ben Sprague about collaborating on a research project, and this issue was on their minds as well. I teach a year-long seminar at the University of Maine called the Practicum in Engaged Policy Studies, where undergraduates conduct policy research with community partners.
Four talented political science students (Cameron Huston, Sarah Nicols, Spencer Warmuth, and Gareth Warr) devoted an entire academic year to conducting survey research with roughly 900 respondents, both current UMaine students and alumni who had settled locally.
From past research on this issue, we knew that jobs, housing and proximity to family would matter most.
But the full study yielded some interesting insights that can guide our efforts to help more people settle in Maine. To narrow our scope and make the project manageable, we focused on UMaine and not other area colleges and universities, but many of the strategies below could apply to their graduates as well.
Here are five ways we might retain more college graduates:
1. Grow opportunities for internship and work experience in Bangor.
Job and career opportunities were the most significant factor for both students and alums in their resettlement decision-making. Unsurprisingly, then, we found that work and internship experience matter — significantly.
Roughly 10 percent of our student respondents had held an internship in the Bangor area, but this group was twice as likely than those that hadn’t held an internship to stay in the area.
Strikingly, this relationship held true for those who simply worked in the Bangor area (even part-time jobs in retail or the service sector). If businesses, municipal officials and university leaders can build more opportunities for internships and work experience, we can grow this number.
2. Coordinate events and programming to get students to Bangor.
We asked questions about the frequency of time spent in Bangor, as well as what students are doing while they are here. Those who visit Bangor one to three times a month are far less likely to view it as an attractive destination to settle than those visiting more frequently.
In fact, 41 percent of respondents who visited the city a few times a week or more stated it as an “attractive” or “very attractive” post-graduation destination (as opposed to only 3.1 percent who visited the city three or fewer times a month).
Coordinated events and programming to get university students to Bangor, and make them aware of all it has to offer, could pay significant dividends.
3. Showcase and market the downtown area.
Location also matters. Those who visit the city one to three times a month are largely spending time near the Bangor Mall. There are shopping opportunities there that may be lacking in Orono, but it may not offer what urban planners call a “unique selling point.”
Bangor’s distinctiveness is rooted in its vibrant downtown — a hub for arts, history, culture, entertainment and unique shops. Those students who spend their time in the greater downtown Bangor area are far more likely to view the city as an attractive post-graduation destination.
Efforts to get students to Bangor should showcase the downtown area as a centerpiece.
4. Work to provide quality affordable housing (likely rentals) for recent grads.
Current students cited cost of living as an important factor in choosing a place to live more frequently than alumni (who were asked to think about the factors that mattered most to them when they graduated). This makes sense. Today’s graduates are emerging with significantly higher levels of debt than those who left school even 10 years ago.
A college degree means significantly higher lifetime earnings, but recent grads are highly attuned cutting costs and paying down their debts, particularly when it comes to housing. Ensuring access to quality, affordable housing for recent graduates is crucially important, particularly in those precarious years following graduation.
5. Support quality public school systems.
Graduates typically do not have the local school system at the forefront of their minds immediately. But it becomes an important consideration as they start thinking about starting a family. Recent debates in Bangor about the school budget have been framed in terms of costs (and elaborate papier-mâché pigs). Managing municipal budgets and keeping property taxes affordable is important, particularly in light of the suggestion above. But funding our schools is also an investment, ensuring that we retain more young families and everything that entails: paying taxes, buying homes, actively participating in their communities, supporting local businesses, etc.
One final, and important, point. Retaining recent graduates can only be a part of a larger strategy. Former Maine Attorney General Jim Tierney has suggested that Maine’s demographic challenges are so acute that we should follow the lead of states like Minnesota and Nebraska, seeking racially and ethnically diverse streams of foreign-born migrants.
Increased retention as well as attracting those from away is essential, as this is the only factor that has prevented net decline in Maine’s population in recent years. We should scrutinize what has been done in these states and how it might work here.
We’ve made strides in retaining more young people in Bangor, evident in the fact that we are the youngest city in Maine. More than 61 percent of our student respondents expressed that they want to live in a small city after graduation.
If we sustain this momentum, perhaps Bangor can be their destination.
Rob Glover is an assistant professor of honors and political science at the University of Maine. The research referenced above above was conducted by his students Cameron Huston, Sarah Nicols, Spencer Warmuth and Gareth Warr. The students would like to thank Gibran Graham, Ben Sprague, Bangor City Council, The University of Maine Alumni Association, and the Bangor Daily News for their roles in conducting this study. Those interested in reading the full report can access it here.