Is There a Brain Drain Coming?

Just last night, it was announced that the State of Kansas would be making its fifth round of budget cuts (cutting higher ed back tolevels), now equaling a full $1 billion in cuts from of what was originally supposed to be a $6 billion state operating budget.  Kansas is small potatoes.  Students recently protested the 32% tuition increase in California designed to raise $505 million, Colorado will see another $145 million cut (on top of an initial $80.9M) in higher ed next year, Louisiana may lose up to 60% of their funding by 2012, Oregon dropped $118M, and… you know what, you get the picture.  There’s plenty of blame to pass around, certainly, but there’s a another danger in store for higher ed too: brain drain.

I’ve written previously that higher ed has a huge challenge facing them when it comes to hiring talent because they must compete with the private sector over them.  It’s a challenge because it’s difficult to get the best if you can’t even attract the best.  But, when you can attract the best, you must also retain them.  States all across the country are scrambling to cover shortfalls, and in most cases education is one of the top three money vacuums on their lists.  I don’t care about blame.  Blaming people won’t fix our problems.  I care about repercussions and fixing.  See, there are two problems with the current approach.  The first is in most cases, if a state cuts funding for higher education belowlevels, they have to apply for a special waiver or risk losing Federal stimulus money.  The second is that if they cut too much money, they risk damaging the system beyond repair.  What can our system bear?  That’s a question no one can answer, and we’re testing with elementary guess-and-check processes.  It’s Russian Roulette with line item veto.

There’s your rub.  If you are a smart, talented, motivated web developer, and you’re watching the system come down around your head, are you going to just sit there and watch it happen?  Web is an interesting field.  In a time of recession, it’s one area that people still throw money at.  This is because of several reasons like cost shifting and trying new money making opportunities.  As people are laid off, they might be inclined to build a small startup of some kind, and mom-and-pop-shops may try to improve the visibility of their business in the region or expand to bigger markets.  One thing is for sure, it’s never a bad idea to have a few freelance clients on the backburner, and it’s very easy to do, if you know your trade.  A smart person will always keep an ear to the wall in times like this, if only for those “just in case” moments.  That doesn’t mean you want to leave or are trying to, but if you’re flying you’re always supposed to note where the exits are in case of emergency.  Your paycheck should be no different.  The first time a local company puts $70,000 on the table for a well-qualified, talented web developer, do you really think you can ignore it?

Governments will always bounce back from a recession slower than the private sector, and any administrator worth their salt will tell you it is infinitely easier to take money away from education than it is to get it back.  Given the erosion of ground taking place, the question I pose back to you is to see if you think higher ed is in danger of losing some of it’s best and brightest minds in web development to the private sector in the mean time, and if that happens, how do we recover?  I not only think we will lose some, but I would argue we already are, leaving the question to be more along the lines of just how many will fall.  Teams are getting smaller, conferences are being cut, funding is slashed; how much more before you start giving thought to the opportunities that might lie in the clutches of the for-profit industry?  Many people will cite the job security and benefits as a key reason for working under a state umbrella, but when that safety net is more secure with a company, or even when it is self-provided, where will that leave our colleges?

I know I talk about this a lot, but I love my job and the opportunities it has, and I’m becoming increasingly afraid for its future.  There are mountains you can read on the philosophy of the place education has in a powerful, modern, functional society, and in my opinion most of it is on the money.  When education is a target instead of a tool, I think you’re within sight of giving up.  I would love to see some drastically different approaches.  For one, states need to find another fund-cutting target.  Anything.  If you’re going to scuttle higher ed, then just get it over with, otherwise take it seriously.  It’s cat and mouse funding the way states are currently behaving.  Games waste our time and energy and are an enormous distraction.  I’d also love to see new approaches to web development.  Why can’t we start maintaining college sites as part of the education process, via an intensive and multilevel learning program for students?  It’d be hard to establish, and it would take resources, but imagine the long term payoff it creates in ideas, opportunities, and products (i.e. an abundance of hopefully well trained and flexible web developers).

What do you think?  Am I totally off in left field here or are you seeing the same trends?

cc Is There a Brain Drain Coming? photo credit: a shadow of my future self

8 Responses to “Is There a Brain Drain Coming?”

  1. Says:

    I love this post. For me though, I was always worried far more about the way I was treated at a college than anything else, and it’s where a lot of places miss the boat. Creating a quality work environment….one that you don’t dread going into every day….can sometimes offset the financial stuff. I left working for colleges because after two trys and two psycho bosses, I was unable to find that.

    I also agree with you that people should always be looking for freelance opportunities and not apologize it. It creates options. Those who would try to make you feel bad for it are moreso projecting their lack of ability to do what you are doing.

  2. Says:

    On your “let’s wreck the holiday cheer with talk of doom” theme, I’m sure there will be a drain, and I agree with Head of Marketing , it’s not just about the money.

    Layoffs and cutbacks are no fun. Cultures that were less than optimal become downright nasty in times of stress.

    But it’s not just the governmental priorities that are going to provide that stress. Highered has the wrong cost structure, and the students won’t suck it up forever.

    Especially when they have more options. From my little world of education start ups, what’s amazing to me is that so many of the funded education startups are declaring war (they call it “disruption”) on higher ed, instead of trying to work with it.

    Venture capital funded startups tend to be, by necessity, opportunistic.
    That these potential sources of innovation, lower cost, etc. see highered as a dinosaur, that isn’t worth the trouble, can’t be good for institutions.

    As these startups succeed, they will contribute to the brain drain.

    Happy thanksgiving!

    • Says:

      I know, I’m the Bringer of Doom. If there’s one thing I know, it’s how to crush spirits.

      There’s a flip side to this discussion I didn’t talk about, but that also interests me, and Kevin, you touched on it this morning on Twitter re: the California student video. Brain drain isn’t just an employment thing. I’m curious how long before states like California and Florida start see major migrations of students to schools where it’s cheaper to pay out of state tuition, for instance Missouri, where they have frozen tuition costs to prevent increases. That’s basic economics 101, trying to balance costs with “customers.” If you lose X customers for every Y increase in price, at some point you do more damage by increasing price. CA just threw the frog into boiling water on that one, I’m interested to see if the students jump out.

      Okay, enough metaphors from me.

  3. Says:

    At an engineering college, we feel particular pressure to make our web presence edgy and engaging, which we continue striving to do with the talent that’s here now. As budget cuts erode resources, though, there’s growing a sense that production is valued more than creativity. That’s more of a threat to quality work than any potential losses to the private sector. In the Midwest, by the way, we face a long-term decline in high school graduates at the same time that tuition revenue exceeds state funding. Those disgruntled California students are looking pretty good, if they can actually be enticed to exchange beaches for blizzards.

  4. Says:

    Coming? In California, it is already here. Our little recession more or less dates back to 2002-03, following the ENRON/California power debacle. We had a couple of years where revenues, budgets and salaries went up, but IIRC, we have had just two or three cost of living raises out of those eight years - in the other years, there just hasn’t been the money for it.

    As a result, people have been jumping ship from the UC and CSU for quite a while. In this latest set of cuts, we are seeing many layoffs and some who have previously decided to stick it out are seeing the writing on the wall and looking to move into the private sector. In fact, I have this job because my predecessor did just that.

    And it isn’t going to get any better in the next year. California is looking at ANOTHER 15 billion dollar deficit in the next fiscal year, and some of that will have to be soaked up by the CSU’s & UC’s. Every employee has taken a pay cut in the form of furloughs and many have been laid off, with the closing of centers and elimination of departments. A hiring freeze on faculty and a “chill” on staff has resulted in dozens of open positions across campus. As NPR said the other day, not only is there not a light at the end of the tunnel, there isn’t an end to the tunnel.

    The students who are protesting the regents are barking up the wrong tree, they should be going at the governor, the assembly, and trying to convince taxpayers that support for higher ed makes a difference. But that is a debate for a different day.

    But, for all its warts, it is still California, the land of sun, palm trees and sand. No water, but we steal that from Northern California. Thanksgiving Day is supposed to be about 80 degrees. You should come visit. Bring money.

  5. Says:

    Spot on Michael. Here in Illinois I believe that drain began inwhen the state started targeting higher ed. In that time I’ve seen many talented colleagues flee to greener pastures. Today, as our paychecks even for Dec are threatened, I’m seeing even the diehard educators polish their resume.

    Now this will no doubt be a blow throughout higher ed, however I also have to wonder as to how this will affect our economy as a whole later once education leaves innovation will soon follow.

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  7. Says:


    Thought I’d try and lighten the mood a little. Acording to The Mayacalender and its predictions, the world will be ending on December 12so do we really need to worry too much about the budget?