Nebraska ‘Brain Drain’ Persists, Plus Another Alarm is Raised by New Census Data

UNO study flags growing concern over people with lesser levels of education also fleeing the state.

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OMAHA — Nebraska’s “brain drain” of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher leaving the state is persistent and worsening, according to newly released U.S. Census data.

But the same survey also raises an alarm about who else is fleeing.

“Notably, the data reveals that individuals 25 years and older with other (lesser) levels of educational attainment also are leaving the state,” says Josie Schafer of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Her office, which consults with state policymakers and legislators about workforce and economic development patterns, analyzed migration-related findings from the American Community Survey’s five-year estimates through 2022, which were released this month.

In 2022, the state lost an estimated 1,089 adults aged 25 and older with an education of high school diploma or less. While a relatively small slice, Schafer said that the drop marks a shift from several previous years when Nebraska was attracting individuals in that education group.

In the category of individuals with some college or an associate degree, Nebraska saw a net gain in 2022, though small: 35. For perspective, the state in 2019 had a net increase in that population of more than 2,000.

Schafer said the data did not allow her to drill into specific reasons why the people with less education than a bachelor’s or professional degree might not be finding Nebraska as alluring as in the past.

She believes patterns could be driven by job availability, better wages and job benefits offered elsewhere, or perhaps quality of life factors such as housing and child care.

“The idea of Nebraska being a low cost-of-living-state — they might not be feeling it,” said Schafer.

Erin Porterfield, executive director of nonprofit Heartland Workforce Solutions, which serves Douglas, Sarpy and Washington Counties, checked with network partners to better understand why their clients might be eyeing the exit door.

Among reasons cited are that negative experiences with racism “contribute to feeling unsafe” and to reduced employment and social opportunities.

“Feeling like Nebraska isn’t for everyone,” was another refrain, along with increased limits “on rights for people of diverse identities, including transgender care.”

Porterfield also said Nebraska is relatively early in establishing a solid “employment pipeline,” which leaves some young adults unclear about their employment and career opportunities.

While employers generally are “trying now, more than ever” to connect with young people to show what a career pathway could look like, she said, such linkages have a ways to go.

Especially for Nebraskans who need to support themselves financially after high school, Porterfield said, “they often feel lost.”

Meanwhile, said Schafer, the exodus of people with a bachelor’s degree or more remains a “critical issue” for Nebraska.

Her analysis of the newly released survey data showed a sustained trend, with the state losing a net 4,610 people with that higher education level in 2022, compared to the previous year’s 4,415.

To be sure, there are still more than 400,000 individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher living in Nebraska. “Lots of people stay in Nebraska,” Schafer said, “But the fact the trend is continuing to be negative is certainly something that should give us pause.”

Overall, while an estimated 31,600 people 25 and older left Nebraska in 2022, about 26,000 people moved into the state.

Schafer has said consistently that job opportunities, more so than taxes, tend to be top of mind when people choose to leave or come to Nebraska.

But earlier this year her office released an analysis, based on a separate federal survey, that revealed housing — the challenge of finding it — as a top influencer of  overall and more recent outmigration from Nebraska.

Yet another study this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City said that immigrants and refugees historically have been a larger component of Nebraska population growth than incoming migration from other states.

From the 1990s through 2015, immigration to Nebraska increased annually by about 5%. But starting in 2017, immigration to the Husker state, as well as the nation, fell steadily.

Had Nebraska continued to add residents from abroad at the same rate prior to 2016, the Federal Reserve economists said, the state’s population by last year might have increased by an additional 19,000 individuals.

Lina Traslaviña Stover, executive director of the immigrant-focused and statewide Heartland Workers Center, suspects that innovative recruitment and retention strategies from competing states may be luring foreign-born workers that otherwise might be in Nebraska.

Anecdotally, she said, a construction business in Nebraska offers different types of work during cold months to keep its labor force on the payroll. “Perhaps we don’t have enough of those,” she said.

Traslaviña Stover said that in reality, she still sees foreign-born workers moving to Nebraska, including from states such as Florida. Those same people are willing to uproot if better opportunity beckons, she said.

“They already did the move once,” said Traslaviña Stover. “Why not twice or three times for what they consider to be better conditions.”

When it comes to “brain drain,” Nebraska is joined by bordering states of Iowa, Missouri and Wyoming, which also experienced a net loss of their more educated population.

Colorado, Kansas and South Dakota all saw “brain gain,” though the gains for Kansas and South Dakota were relatively small.

Nationally, big gainers of the more formally educated population were Florida, Texas and Arizona.

Schafer said those three states, along with Georgia and Tennessee, also were among the top states for 2022 gains in adults with education attainment of high school or less.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: info@nebraskaexaminer.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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