America’s shrinking cities are widely viewed to be suffering from a “brain drain”—the flight of highly educated residents to other, more hospitable locales—that is crippling these cities’ economic competitiveness. While such cities have many problems, brain drain as popularly conceived is not one of them. Indeed, the conventional wisdom on brain drain and declining human capital in shrinking U.S. metropolitan areas is largely a myth: brain gain, not drain, is the reality.
This paper analyzes 28 such metro areas and finds that only three (Detroit, Bridgeport, and Toledo) have a potential brain-drain concern—and only in the young-adult bracket.
- Every major U.S. metro area that is losing population and/or jobs is actually gaining people with college degrees—at double-digit rates.
- As a group, America’s shrinking cities are holding their own with—and, in many cases, outperforming—the rest of the country in overall education-attainment rates.
- Most shrinking U.S. cities are increasing their educated-population share by adding more young adults with college degrees—and are catching up with the rest of the U.S. in young adult college degree–attainment levels.
Such findings suggest that policies designed to stop or reverse brain drain are attacking the wrong problem. The time and money being spent to fight brain drain in these cities should instead be redirected to more real and pressing problems, such as fiscal distress, infrastructure challenges, public safety, and excessive regulation.