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With 35 colleges and universities in Boston, it’s not attracting students that’s hard; it’s retaining them. Highly educated tech talent is leaving at the highest rate in the U.S. And if a city like Boston can’t keep its graduates, how does rural America stand a chance?

Cities nationwide are battling brain drain. How to attract and retain college graduates is a problem plaguing policymakers everywhere — from those in small towns from West Virginia to Wyoming to those in sprawling urban centers like Boston.

Why college students choose to relocate varies. For some, it’s employment opportunities or the cost of living. For others, it’s the desire to live closer to family, change climates, or pursue a particular recreational activity.

In New England, where the population of recent college graduates grew by only 12.1 percent between 1990 and 2010 — less than one-third the national increase, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston — brain drain is job related. Nearly 60 percent of those fleeing the region cited employment as their impetus for moving.

Economic Impact of Brain Drain

That migration can have a significant impact on the local economy. In New Jersey, more than 31,000 first-time college students left the state in 2012, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Only 4,377 students stayed, making it difficult for the state to attract companies in need of young, skilled workers. A recent study by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association showed that the state lost 75,000 jobs and an accompanying $11.4 billion in economic output to outmigration.

In rural areas, the narrative is no different. Illinois is second behind New Jersey as the state with the largest brain drain. Nearly 29,000 students in 2012 attended college outside Illinois, according to NCES, while only an approximate 12,400 chose to stay inside state lines.

“It’s a significant issue for us,” Kathy Lively, CEO of Illinois-based workforce development group Man-Tra-Con told The Southern Illinoisan. “What we see is that once young people leave here to go away to college, many times they stay gone.”

Education has a clear impact on the economy. It’s why Bruce Katz, vice president of think tank the Brookings Institution, has encouraged colleges and universities to expand their graduate programs and research assets into the core of cities to help revitalize growth. Making that move isn’t in the budget for every institution, however, and location can still be limiting. Take Boston, which enrolls about 152,000 students between its 35 colleges and universities — battling brain drain remains a challenge.

Online Education and the Talent Gap

Colleges and universities can bridge the gap by offering more high-quality online degree programs, allowing students to learn where they are and effect change in their local communities without ever having to leave them.

Supporting access to top-tier online degree programs should be a priority for policymakers trying to attract and retain students. Strengthening ties between colleges and employers doesn’t require a physical campus. It requires offering degree programs in high-demand fields, like data science, ranked the number one job in America based on earning potential, career opportunities, and number of job openings according to Glassdoor. Regions most impacted by brain drain will benefit from degree programs that are aligned to the needs of businesses on the hunt for young, highly educated talent.

Students should not be limited to the degree programs offered only by the colleges and universities in their community. If a student wants to pursue a career in technology, but can’t find a degree that complements their aspirations, they’ll enroll in an institution that will allow them to achieve their personal and professional goals — likely in a location where they think the employment opportunities are greater, regardless of whether they wanted to stay in their home state. For regions already dealing with a talent gap, that only heightens the struggle.

With online degree programs, students can choose to complete their degree at a top-ranked college or university from anywhere the world, without ever having to leave their hometown.

The Emerging Digital Workforce

More than one in four students now take at least one distance course, according to the 2015 Survey of Online Learning. But education isn’t the only area experiencing an uptick in virtual habits. From 2005 to 2014, there was a 103 percent increase in virtual workforces; nearly half of the global organizations surveyed by the Society for Human Resources Management claimed to use virtual teams. An added advantage of online learning is that it can help prepare students for a world where telecommuting is a reality.

By participating in online courses, students have the opportunity to improve their virtual communication skills. They learn how to appropriately interact with their classmates and faculty through discussion boards, and develop technical competencies by utilizing the latest collaboration tools. And they build these real-world skills while learning on their own schedule.

Local economies could benefit from more companies hiring virtual teams. If talent can find better-paying, high-quality jobs without having to move, they’re more likely to stay. The more talent that stays, the more money that gets pumped back into the economy, and the easier it is for that economy to attract new, emerging businesses.

For employers, establishing a virtual workforce means there’s less overhead — no longer are businesses forced to pay for the utilities, rents, and supplies that come with operating out of a physical space — and there’s less of a geographic limitation on recruiting. Companies can start hiring the right employees for the job regardless of their physical location.

That economic growth can start with quality online education.

Quality online degree programs have a significant role to play in fostering the talent cities nationwide are trying to retain. Rather than limit college students to the schools only in their town or state, policymakers can open students’ eyes to the opportunities they have worldwide. They can revitalize their cities by strengthening the connections to institutions in other parts of the country with greater access to emerging industries. They can close the talent gap not just in their own region, but through strategic partnerships, help rebuild cities around the globe.

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