Keeping college graduates in Alabama

The Alabama Commission on Higher Education has launched an initiative called All in Alabama to keep those sought-after college graduates here

Alabama needs a highly skilled workforce, Gov. Kay Ivey says, and she has pledged to add a half-million college graduates to the state labor pool.

But big salaries and job opportunities are luring many new graduates elsewhere. Just over 14% of graduates say they are unlikely or very unlikely to stay in Alabama after they get a diploma.

The Alabama Commission on Higher Education has launched an initiative called All in Alabama to keep those sought-after college graduates here. The program has three components. Retain Alabama targets recent graduates. Recall Alabama is geared toward graduates who moved away and may want to return. Later, Reengage Alabama will focus on those who want to complete a degree.

Retain Alabama’s social media push that launched this fall attempts to persuade students in Alabama’s colleges and universities to stay put.

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“It’s about undergraduates and keeping them in the state after they graduate, to live and work in our economy,” says Dr. Jim Purcell, ACHE executive director.

Retain Alabama’s objectives are to develop a targeted outreach campaign, make it easier for students to find jobs here and improve perceptions about things that are important to students as they plan their futures.

Roughly 28,000 students obtained degrees from Alabama institutions of higher learning in 2021, ACHE data shows.

“These are students that could build our state’s economy by working for its companies, large and small, established and emerging, as well as by living and contributing to its communities,” the ACHE report states.

“We hear from companies every day that they are struggling to find the talent that they need, and that they need to build pipelines of talent for the future,” the summary continues.

Alabama keeps only about 20% of out-of-state college students. Roughly two-thirds of in-state students stay, a ranking that Forbes still calls third-worst in the country.

The second piece of the ACHE initiative, Recall Alabama, will target alumni and those who have taken jobs elsewhere “to raise their awareness of opportunities in Alabama and bring them back,” says Purcell. Direct marketing campaigns, alumni and workforce development groups will reach out to them.

Reengage Alabama, the third prong, will target people over 25 who didn’t complete or never started a degree. The idea is to remove academic and financial barriers to obtaining credentials or finishing diplomas.

All in Alabama “started back in 2020 when ACHE did a big employment outcomes report,” explains Purcell. “That report was made in partnership with the Department of Labor and we were looking to see if graduates from Alabama’s public institutions showed up in the workforce data.”

Only about half of bachelor’s degree holders were still working in the state one to five years later.

The obvious questions: Why are students leaving? How can we keep them?

“First of all, it was encouraging,” says Purcell. “Last year, in a COVID year, we got about 75% of students saying they wanted to stay in Alabama or maybe stay in Alabama.”

In the 2022 study just released, 44.3% of students say they are very likely to work in Alabama, with 23.1% likely to do so. Eighty-five percent are interested in learning about Alabama jobs in their field.

Perhaps most importantly, student surveys are finding out why those highly prized graduates may leave.

“By far the most frequent comment was, ‘Well, it’s about jobs. I would stay if I got a good job,’ or ‘I found a job somewhere else and I’m already leaving,’ in the case of some seniors,” Purcell says.

Other factors they consider are family ties, personal relationships and church.

“Students are looking to live and work in a city with plenty of professional opportunities, social activities and a sense of community,” one ACHE survey found. “Both in- and out-of-state students want a vibrant community with potential upward mobility and diversity when looking for a place to live and work, but there are slight differences between these groups.”

In-state students are concerned about the cost of living. Out-of-state students are looking for a “manageable city: a short commute, small-town feel and lots of amenities.”

In a previous Retain Alabama survey, about 75% of respondents said they were open to staying in Alabama.

“They weren’t all trying to get out the door,” Purcell says. “What we’re working on is creating the perception that they will be more successful here.”

Other factors in their decision are job opportunities in their field of study, potential salary and benefits, cost of living, public safety and a potential for advancement.

Students do say that they like Alabama’s outdoors and natural environment offerings such as hiking trails, parks and the beach.

Graduates in certain fields — like architecture and public policy — are more likely to go elsewhere, the survey found.

“A lot of our education graduates want to stay and work here,” says Purcell. Workers in health care, engineering and computer science tend to be “in the middle of the pack” when it comes to staying put.

Gov. Ivey said in July that, with the Success Plus plan launched in 2018, the state is “well on our way to surpassing the goal of adding 500,000 additional credentialed individuals to our workforce by 2025.” The Legislature earmarked $950,000 to fund it this fiscal year.

“In order to do that, we’ve got to produce more graduates from universities and college programs and industry programs,” says Purcell. “Another strategy that might be even an easier lift would be keeping the graduates in the state.”

Many students expressed interest in internships and fellowships that might lead to job offers. ACHE has enlisted a student retention council from 14 universities to explore ideas.

“We really need to make sure there are enough opportunities out there for everyone,” says Purcell. Some students may not even realize that an internship is helpful in landing a permanent job, he notes.

Salaries are a major factor propelling recent graduates away from Alabama, the study showed.

“One thing we found in the data is that they are very sensitive to the actual salary,” says Purcell. That one thing tends to outweigh social and community factors like family ties and quality of life.

 “We do have jobs in Alabama,” says Purcell. “They just don’t pay as much.”

Perhaps it’s time business leaders address that disparity, he suggests. “We do need employers to recognize the competition is high, and maybe there are some cases where they need to up their game,” Purcell adds.

One nebulous goal to keep graduates here is improving the overall perception of the state. “That is what we’re working on right now,” Purcell says.

Deborah Storey is a Huntsville-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

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