Author of Brookings study claiming Phoenix suffers worst ‘brain drain’ revises numbers

A study analyzing which metropolitan areas retain their university graduates the most has come under fire after the Phoenix metro area landed in the basement of the rankings. Officials with the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Arizona Commerce Authority fought back, and the study’s author has revised the numbers.

Jonathan Rothwell, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.,-based Brookings Institution, collected data from LinkedIn profiles to examine where two- and four-year college graduates are likely to stay put.

The result? The Phoenix/Mesa/Glendale area ranked last in retaining its graduates with only 18 percent of four-year university alumni sticking around to work. The New York area, by comparison, had a 71 percent retention rate in the same category.

Richard Florida, a writer for the blog CityLab, published Rothwell’s data last month in an article entitled The U.S. cities winning the battle against brain drain.

The data covered more than 1,700 of the largest U.S. colleges and universities, according to Florida’s article.
However, Rothwell included students from the University of Phoenix in his analysis. In 2014, the Arizona campus of University of Phoenix had more than 180,000 online-only students compared with less than 9,000 students physically in Arizona, according to the Arizona Commerce Authority.

Grand Canyon University was another online heavy institution considered in Rothwell’s study. Nearly 50,000 students were online only.

“I understand the effort and applaud the effort of putting together the data,” said Anubhav Bagley, information services manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments. “It just needs to be done right.”

Doing it “right” means understanding the nuances of Arizona’s universities, Bagley said.

Bagley said 284,000 students graduated from University of Arizona and Arizona State University over the past 15 years. Data from the Maricopa Association of Governments and Arizona Commerce Authority show more than 69 percent of those graduates still live in Arizona.

“I got personal emails from the Maricopa association and from another organization in Phoenix, both of which were very disappointed with the blog,” Rothwell said. “I tried to tell them, ‘Look, it was because the University of Phoenix was in there, and I’m sorry we didn’t adjust for that. We didn’t really do this in-depth analysis. It’s just presenting this raw data.’”

In Rothwell’s eyes, the criticism of his work stems from a “misunderstanding.”

“It was never my intention to suggest people are disproportionately leaving Phoenix because of any negative characteristics that the city has,” Rothwell said. “We plan on doing more research on this. We want other people to do more research with this data.”

Although it wasn’t Rothwell’s intention, local officials said the data cast a misleading shadow on Phoenix.

“Any studies or reports like this that provide a negative connotation about our region or state are concerning because these numbers have a life of their own,” Bagley said. “These stories have a life of their own, and they keep coming up. It is essential to be able to point to them and say, ‘There was these errors.’ … But it’s hard to do that if you don’t have the right data sets.”

State and local officials routinely tout the area’s skilled workforce when trying to recruit companies to Arizona.

“As a state, we are putting in so many resources into our higher education. We need to be ensuring that we have economic power that still stays here with the state because every graduate helps us move our economy forward,” Bagley said. “It’s essential for us to be looking at that strategically and ask, ‘how many of those graduates are we retaining?’ And if we’re not retaining them, what do we need to do as a state and as a region to retain them? Because that workforce is essential for moving our economy forward.”

Bennett Dwosh, a recent Arizona State University graduate, said the Phoenix area’s low retention percentage cited in the original study would make him hesitant to stay.

“Being at the bottom of a list of cities to work after graduation, regardless of whether it’s true or not, you’d want to be near the top,” he said. “It’d be a flag on my radar.”

Florida updated the article, pointing out the caveats in the Phoenix area. And Rothwell’s revised figures showed the Phoenix area with a 41-percent retention rate for four-year university graduates, which would likely push Phoenix out of the Top 10 worst metro areas in that category. (The author did not revise the charts accompanying his article.)

Rothwell apologized for any confusion. He plans to utilize the numbers to analyze the effect college graduates have on local economies.

“To people in Phoenix that are interested in this or people who are considering moving to Phoenix, nothing in this blog post suggests that Phoenix is a bad place to live, and there’s no reason to interpret the data that way,” he said. “There are many different caveats and considerations that need to be addressed in calculating why people stay in a place or don’t.”

Dwosh, a Phoenix native, said he would like to work in the area if he can.

“The more we can change the perception that Phoenix is not a bad destination to be after graduation, the better outcomes we’ll see moving forward,” he said. “And studies like this won’t get published that sort of misrepresent the attractiveness of the Phoenix market.”