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Struggling Ohio cities are searching for innovative ways to attract and keep young professionals and one area community has taken a dramatic step to slow the long-feared “brain drain” by offering recent college graduates free money.

Recent college grads are a desired demographic for cities because they tend to generate higher tax revenue, invest in the community more and are able to fill the need for an increasingly educated workforce.

The city of Hamilton languished for years as people and employers left town and at one point the leader of Western States Machine Co. even called the city’s downtown boring and depressing in 2012. Since then, the city has rebounded by bringing in more local attractions but the Hamilton Community Foundation is trying to make sure that narrative never re-emerges by helping out recent college grads to the tune of $5,000.

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The foundation has launched a post-college scholarship fund called the Talent Attraction Program Scholarship. Successful applicants to the program will receive $200 a month for 25 months to help pay off their student loans, said Katie Braswell, vice president of the foundation.

“We keep hearing a lot about the high student loan debt that most of our young people have and how it’s holding them back from life sometimes,”Braswell said.

Paying down loan debt is one of the biggest hurdles to new graduates and area colleges are known to send students out into the world with more debt than the average Ohio graduate, a 2016 study from the Institute for College Access and Success showed.

 

Graduates of the University of Dayton, Wittenberg University and Wright State University all carried more loan debt in 2015 than the state average of $30,239 that year. Overall, around 44 million Americans owe more than $1.48 trillion in student debt, according to Student Loan Hero, a company that helps people organize and repay debt.

Alleving some of the debt burden is an attractive incentive to recent grads, said Sean Creighton, president of the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education. It also frees up recent college grads to spend their money in the communities they live in.

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“The more money you have in your pocket, the more money you’re going to spend in other areas,” Creighton said.

Some of these incentives may be working in Ohio. From 1990 to 2010, Ohio lost more than 420,000 young adults. But a recent analysis of U.S. Bureau of Census estimates by this newspaper shows Ohio increased the number of adults age 20-29 by 65,433 from 2010 to 2016.

Ohio also appears to have stemmed the tide of people of any age leaving for opportunities elsewhere, according to newly released U.S. Census population estimates. Data shows Ohio gained a net of 36,055 people from July 1, 2016, to July 1, 2017.

The region gained more than 1,700 people from other states or other parts of Ohio, and Butler, Clark, Champaign, Greene, Miami, Preble and Warren counties all saw gains — some for the first time in a decade.

The Hamilton Community Foundation is still reviewing applications and conducting interviews for its first group of program participants. To be eligible for the program, applicants must have graduated within the last seven years with a degree in science, technology, engineering, math or the arts, according to the foundation.

Scholarship winners must move to the “urban core” of Hamilton and must work within Butler County, Braswell said. Around 37 people have started the application process and within the next few weeks, Braswell said the foundation hopes to have some people selected.

“You’ve heard of the brain drain from lots of different communities,” Braswell said. “If we can bring back young, talented professionals to our community then we can make Hamilton better.”

‘Making an impact’

The Hamilton Community Foundation based its talent program on a similar one started in Port Huron, Michigan that has been in place since 2013.

The “Come Home Award” offered through the Community Foundation of St. Clair County has awarded around 15 scholarships of up to $15,000 over the last five years, said Hale Walker, chairman of the award’s committee.

In the past, someone might go off to school in another state and never come back. But the award has changed that and encourages people to “establish some roots,” Walker said.

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“We’re looking at that issue of: ‘Are we really making an impact?’” Walker said. “I can’t give you that answer yet because we haven’t had enough time but we’re focused on it.”

Offering incentives to attract talent may be a newer phenomenon for cities to propose but it’s a practice Ohio businesses have been exploring for years, said Ryan Burgess, director of Gov. John Kasich’s office for workforce development.

Burgess pointed to Amazon and Walmart, which are both offering to help their employees pay for college degrees. Walmart has nearly 40 stores in southwest Ohio and Amazon has a location in Monroe, two facilities near Columbus and is planning an air cargo hub at the Cincinnati/ Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Burgess has also heard of companies like Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati that are hiring concierges for employees. The concierges help out with daily tasks like running personal errands and child care, he said.

“This is an example where economic and workforce development are morphing into the same thing,” Burgess said. “Companies and communities are trying to become more creative because the labor market is so tight right now.”

‘Our version of Dayton’

More money and job perks might not cut it for recent college grads who are looking for something a little deeper and more personal.

Quality of life and a sense of community are both big factors young people consider when deciding where to live and work, said 26-year-old AJ Ferguson, outgoing director of the organization UpDayton.

UpDayton is a nonprofit that seeks to spur economic development by attracting young professionals to the region. To do so, the organization tries to highlight the Gem City’s assets and businesses, among other things.

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“Our version of Dayton is the one that has thriving new businesses, all kinds of chances to get involved and is packed with optimism,” Ferguson said. “Don’t believe what your parents told you about Dayton. It’s either changed or just downright wrong.”

Getting people involved in the community is also a focus of UpDayton. The group volunteers around the city and hosts a number of programs such as The Longest Table, an annual event that brings area residents together to discuss challenges facing the region over a meal.

By the numbers

$200: Amount per month the Hamilton foundation will pay recent grads with loan debt.

25: Number of months the foundation will assist a recent grad.

$1.4 trillion: Total amount of student loan debt of all Americans.

44 million: Number of Americans with student loan debt right now.

“When a young person has that sense of ownership and ability to contribute to a community…It means a lot more,” Ferguson said. “You can move to San Francisco tomorrow and you can get in line behind Mark Zuckerberg…But, in Dayton or in Hamilton you matter immediately. I think that Hamilton’s new policy gets right at that.”

If deeper roots or extra incentives don’t attract recent college grads, a high paying job likely will and Ohio has no shortage of them right now, said Burgess.

At any given time there are more than 150,000 positions posted on the Ohio Means Jobs website. Half of those jobs also pay more than $50,000, Burgess said.

“I think Ohio is absolutely holding our own and we’re winning that fight,” Burgess said. “The companies and communities are just being forced to get more creative.”

Thanks for reading

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