Attracting talent: Boston and its college graduates


By Zimo Zhou

April 28, 2015

Undoubtedly, people in most cases might never leave a city that provides them better opportunities. As a higher education hub, Boston attracts students who dream of earning degrees from prestigious universities. But for recent graduates, this city may still have the potential to be even more attractive.

It is true that talent not only refers to people who have degrees. But because Boston serves as an education hub, attracting and keeping talent via college students and graduates impacts the city’s status as world-class.

A 2011 Boston Redevelopment Authority report lists 56 institutions of higher education in metropolitan Boston, including 35 colleges, universities, and community colleges in the city  itself. The data from Forbes magazine in 2013 shows that 44.8 percent of population in Boston-Cambridge-Newton area is college-educated, which ranks first across the country. Generally the total number of college student enrollment in Greater Boston area has been keeping climbing for a decade. During the academic year 2014-2015, the five top colleges by student enrollment in the Boston area are:

  1. Boston University — 30,009
  2. Harvard University — 21,000
  3. Boston College — 14,100
  4. Northeastern University — 13,204
  5. University of Massachusetts Boston — 12,366
The map shows the land owned or leased by colleges and universities in the Boston area. (Credit: Bill Rankin, 2007, 2009, Radical Cartography)
The map shows the land owned or leased by colleges and universities in the Boston area. (Credit: Bill Rankin, 2007, 2009, Radical Cartography)

Among all the enrolled students, many of them are top ranked in their high school class or undergraduate programs. Take the admission results of Boston University as an example. The infographic below shows the average score level of the undergraduate class of 2019.

Untitled Infographic

Jian Wang, a prospective student who has received the admission of master’s program in advertising at Boston University, just made the decision two weeks ago to go to BU. “The reason why I chose Boston is because it’s a big beautiful city. All my friends who have been there told me that Boston is a great city to live and study,” she said.

Originally from China, Wang is a senior student majoring in communication at University of Colorado Denver. Except for BU, she has also received admissions from several different universities such as University of Texas in Austin. When considering the ideal location of graduate study, she said that big cities were definitely more proper than smaller ones.

“A big city means more resources and opportunities,” said Wang. “Although New York City and Los Angeles are also in the list of big cities, Boston has an academic atmosphere that is quite different from them.”

In recent years, more and more non-local students like Wang have come to Boston, including students both from other parts of the US and the world. A relatively high share of  non-local students has become a characteristic of the college students group in Boston, and even in New England. Data below from U.S. Department of Education shows that in 2008 class, 33.6 percent of students in New England were not from the US, which was much higher than other areas of the nation.


Meanwhile, the Boston metro area is also part of an immigration trend of domestic residents leaving and more international residents coming. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from July 1, 2013, to July 1, 2014, Suffolk County lost 6,413 domestic residents but gained 8,734 international residents (not including births and deaths).

“Boston has long been an immigrant gateway city. For immigrants from certain regions, especially Asia, going to college is a big motivation for migrating,” said Eric Jensen, statistician and demographer of net international migration branch in the U.S. Census Bureau.

It seems that the coming of non-native students has brought more worldwide talents to the city. However, the high percentage of non-native students provides one of the reasons why Greater Boston has a lower retention rate of college graduates compared to other places in the U.S.

The chart below shows the current working location of some recent colleges’ graduates in Boston. The retention rate of these schools range from 27 percent to 75 percent, and the average is about 46 percent. Besides the Greater Boston area, greater New York City area ranks second in receiving most graduates from Boston. Compared to other schools, world-renowned universities such as Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Berklee College of Music also have a lower share of graduates staying in Boston.


Graduates leave Boston for different reasons. Instead of high cost of living, the major reason pushing them out of the city might still be the lack of good job opportunities. According to the Current Population Survey of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston (1999-2012), about 58 percent of college graduates left New England because of employment-related issues. Family-related issues was the second main reason at about 11 percent; fewer than two percent of graduates left Boston because of housing problems.

Although there are many recent studies stressing that the brain drain issue is getting serious in Boston, Boston Redevelopment Authority argues in a 2014 report that “neither brain drain nor retention is a good indicator of how well Boston’s economy performs with regard to its need for younger, college-educated workers.” As the population of educated young people keeps growing, despite local students who leave Boston after graduating, there are still many non-native graduates coming to Boston after they graduate from college in cities other than Boston.

“Boston is not ‘only’ a college town, it does hang on to a fair share of its graduates after they finish school,” said Joseph Cortright, president and principal economist of Impresa, a consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis, innovation and industry clusters. “Boston’s local businesses definitely tap and hang on to this talent and that helps drive its economy.”

In addition, a city government report noted that Boston’s higher education is prepared for cultivating students to work worldwide, so not all the city’s college graduates can or should meet the needs of Boston’s labor market.

Based on the rich resources in medical care and education, these two industries have created huge job opportunities in the city. Health care, finance, and educational services provide more than half of the employment in Boston. But at the same time, college graduates majoring in these areas are but a small percentage of graduates from the area’s 56 higher education institutions. It is clear that Boston’s labor market can never fulfill the career expectations of each graduate who wants to stay here.

“I plan to find a job in Boston if I can after graduating, but besides my willing, it also depends on many other factors such as the talent market in Boston,” said Wang.

About Zimo Zhou 4 Articles

Zimo Zhou is a second year graduate student in journalism at Emerson College. She is originally from Beijing, China, the city she was born and has lived for 20 years. Zimo has a great interest in multimedia journalism. Her career goal is to do multimedia reports in online journalism.