Nebraska Continues to Face ‘Brain Drain’ Issue as New Census Data Raises Concerns

Nebraska is facing an ongoing and worsening issue of “brain drain,” where individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher are leaving the state, according to recently released U.S. Census data.

However, the data also reveals that individuals aged 25 and older with lower levels of educational attainment are also leaving Nebraska, says Josie Schafer of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Schafer’s office analyzed migration-related findings from the American Community Survey, which were released this month. The data shows that in 2022, Nebraska lost an estimated 1,089 adults aged 25 and older with a high school diploma or less. While this is a relatively small number, it marks a shift from previous years when Nebraska was attracting individuals in that education group.

For individuals with some college or an associate degree, Nebraska saw a small net gain of 35 in 2022, compared to a net increase of more than 2,000 in 2019.

According to Schafer, the reason why individuals with less education might not find Nebraska appealing could be due to job availability, better wages and job benefits offered in other places, or quality of life factors such as housing and child care.

Erin Porterfield, executive director of nonprofit Heartland Workforce Solutions, checked with network partners to understand why their clients might be considering leaving Nebraska. Some reasons cited include negative experiences with racism, reduced employment and social opportunities, and increased limitations on rights for people of diverse identities. Porterfield also mentioned that Nebraska is still establishing a solid employment pipeline, which leaves young adults unsure about their employment and career prospects.

According to Schafer’s analysis, the exodus of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher remains a critical issue for Nebraska. The state lost a net of 4,610 individuals with that higher education level in 2022.

Despite these challenges, Nebraska still has over 400,000 individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher living in the state. However, Schafer emphasized that the negative trend should be a cause for concern.

In 2022, an estimated 31,600 individuals aged 25 and older left Nebraska, while approximately 26,000 people moved into the state. Job opportunities tend to be a significant factor in people’s decision to leave or come to Nebraska, according to Schafer. However, a separate analysis conducted by Schafer’s office highlighted housing challenges as a top influencer of outmigration from Nebraska.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s study also indicated that immigrants and refugees have historically played a significant role in Nebraska’s population growth compared to migration from other states. In recent years, immigration to Nebraska has decreased, potentially impacting the state’s population growth.

Lina Traslaviña Stover, executive director of the Heartland Workers Center, suggested that innovative recruitment and retention strategies from competing states may be attracting foreign-born workers who might otherwise have considered Nebraska as an option. Foreign-born workers are willing to move for better opportunities, especially if they have already experienced a similar move in the past.

Nebraska is not alone in facing a “brain drain” issue. Bordering states such as Iowa, Missouri, and Wyoming have also experienced a net loss of their more educated population. Conversely, Colorado, Kansas, and South Dakota have seen a net gain in their more educated population.

Nationally, Florida, Texas, and Arizona stand out as states with substantial gains in their more formally educated population. These states, along with Georgia and Tennessee, also saw significant gains in adults with high school education or less.

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