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San Diego loses more college grads than its universities create, new data shows

San Diego is among the most sought after destinations for college students in the nation, with recent data showing UC San Diego second only to UC Los Angeles in applicants and SDSU in the top 10, beating out prestigious universities like NYU and Michigan.

But when it comes to keeping people around after they’ve graduated, the region doesn’t do so well in comparison to other big California metros.

Only 40% of UC San Diego students stay in the region after graduation, according to data from a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. SDSU does better, with 60% percent staying local. But it isn’t enough to make San Diego County a net exporter of college-educated workers.

For every 100 graduates from all colleges and universities in the San Diego region, the region brings in 99 college-educated workers, the data shows. Meanwhile, Los Angeles and San Francisco counties are net importers of college grads — they end up with 120 and 150 college-educated workers, respectively, for every 100 their local colleges and universities produce.

The data highlights the impressive education local schools like UC San Diego provide, but also points to shortfalls in the local economy, said Ray Major, the chief data and analytics officer at the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).

“This isn't like farm to table where the closest person goes to the closest job,” Major said. “You've got a university which is rated in the top five universities in the world, so UCSD is pumping out insanely amazing, talented individuals that anyone in the world would want to hire. They can go anywhere.”

The issue, he said, is there aren’t enough San Diego companies in fields like healthcare and innovation.

“Businesses need to be able to expand here,” he said. “We need to have a business-friendly environment where people can open their business, expand their operations, hire people, and people can work there and live relatively close by at a reasonable cost.”

Potential solutions

Johnathan Conzelmann, a researcher at the University of North Carolina and co-author of the study, called “Grads on the Go,” pointed to options local leaders could explore.

“We're looking at the responsiveness of colleges and college students to changes in labor market demand,” Conzelmann said. “Also, looking at where colleges send their graduates is related to intergenerational economic upward mobility.”

For example, elected leaders could direct more funding to boost graduation rates at local colleges where students are more likely to remain in the area.

“That’s one sensible way to think about increasing college-educated labor in San Diego,” Conzelmann said.

That funding could be used in part to help lower-income San Diegans afford local colleges, said Daniel Enemark, the senior economist at the San Diego Workforce Partnership.

“If we were able to make it possible for people who don't have as much family wealth to get a college education, I think the likelihood of them staying here is much higher,” he said.

To retain more graduates, colleges could help graduates with housing, and San Diego should also set up loan forgiveness programs for degrees in certain fields, Enemark said. Currently, the Workforce Partnership is working on such a program in the behavioral healthcare field, which is currently experiencing a massive labor shortage.

The need for college graduates is especially acute in the current labor market. Right now in San Diego, there are two unfilled jobs for every unemployed person, Enemark said. Plus, employers need to pay more.

“If workers didn't get an 8.2% raise this year, they are making less money this year than they were making last year,” he said.

Devin Lecakes-Jones, who graduated from UC San Diego in 2021 and hopes to build a career as a high school teacher and stay in the region forever.

“I think it’s just the way I was raised, both my parents were high school teachers, and that kind of influenced my pathway to become a high school teacher,” said Lecakes-Jones, who is living and working in Ramona because that’s the only place he can afford.

Meanwhile, his friend from college, Josef Polk, moved to the Stockton area to become a lawyer and work on a horse ranch.

“UC San Diego helps San Diego build a really good base for professionals going from college into the real world,” Polk said.

But right now, many of those students are going into the real world outside the San Diego region.

As a member of the investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.
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