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Buffalo's renaissance leaves college graduates wondering: Go ... or stay?

Sheldon Anderson graduated from SUNY Buffalo State last year with a master’s degree and a big decision: whether to stay in upstate New York or head back to his native Brooklyn.

For decades, thousands of students have flocked to Western New York’s 21 colleges and universities each fall, only to take their talent and earning potential back home after commencement. But a growing number of these new college grads appear to be staying in the area, colleges say, hinting at a distant end to to the “brain drain” that plagued Buffalo for generations.

“I’ve found that Buffalo has a lot to offer,” said Anderson, 27, who recently bought a home off Richmond Avenue. “So many millennials want to move to a big city and make a life that looks like it’s out of a magazine or something. But you can’t lay a foundation that way. In Buffalo, it’s easier.”

College administrators caution their observations are preliminary and that not all schools have documented shifts yet. But a growing number see more students choosing Buffalo after graduation, said Steven Harvey, the executive director of the Western New York College Consortium, which coordinates recruitment and economic development efforts for 21 local colleges.

Daemen College has seen its retention rates jump from 56 percent in 2014 to 68 percent in 2018, for instance. Buffalo State reports that 65 percent of its most recent grads stayed local, compared to 59 percent of all graduates.

And while the University at Buffalo, the region’s largest university, does not track its alumni after graduation, more students appear interested in staying now, said Arlene Kaukus, the university's career services director. She credits regional job growth, especially in medical technology and startups. Low living costs also have enticed students away from pricier areas.

“Anecdotally, when you talk to young people, there’s a lot of very strong positivity,” Kaukus said. “Students and recent graduates feel good about the local economy and about job opportunities in the area.”

Overall, only 45 percent of graduates of Western New York colleges remain in the region, according to Emsi, a national provider of labor market analytics. Even among its Rust Belt peers, Buffalo has historically fallen well below average on retention. One 2016 analysis by the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Brookings Institution ranked the region’s post-college brain drain eighth-worst among large metropolitan areas.

By comparison, Cincinnati retains 62 percent of its graduates, and St. Paul keeps 74 percent. That has expanded those cities’ tax bases and generated millions of dollars in additional spending for local businesses.

“From an economic development standpoint, we want to keep graduates here,” said Laura Quebral, the director of UB's Regional Institute and an architect of the Buffalo Billion program. “They’re active, they bring ideas, they have energy – and their lifetime earning potential is for sure higher.”

Local colleges and businesses have stepped up efforts to stem brain drain in light of those imperatives, they say, convening industry advisory councils and partnering on job placement programs. One new program at Alfred University provides juniors and seniors $1,000 grants to pursue local projects that may lead to jobs. Next spring, the WNY College Consortium will also host a series of meetings with local hiring representatives, university provosts and career services directors to expand the number of internships available in the region.

“All indicators are that students are trying to stay in Western New York, and employers are trying to make that more attractive,” said Mike Skowronski, Niagara University’s assistant director of career services.

Sheldon Anderson, a SUNY Buffalo State graduate, works at the state Department of Transportation. He moved here from Brooklyn for college and has stayed after graduation. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Some initiatives have gone even further. In Niagara Falls, a two-year pilot program paid the student loan bills of recent grads who agreed to live in the city’s blighted downtown. At UB and Canisius College, the Western New York Prosperity Fellowship – funded by the Prentice Family Foundation – provides scholarships, research funding and mentorship to high-achieving students who agree to spend two years in the area after graduation.

One of this year’s applicants, 19-year-old sophomore Ryan Dils, said he assumed he’d have to leave Buffalo to pursue a career in computer science. He became convinced exciting projects existed here, too, after interning with 43North alum ACV Auctions.

“I can visibly see the economic growth in Buffalo, and I want to be a part of that,” Dils said. “Or if I leave for a little while, I want to come back again.”

Economic growth hasn't benefited everyone or every industry, of course. Despite employment and wage gains over the past seven years, Buffalo's job growth lags both New York State and the United States as a whole. There are four local grads for every job opening in fields such as management and education, according to UBRI analyses.

Graduates of local schools also stand to make money in other cities, particularly in professions such as law and computer science. Graduates who leave the region, Emsi data show, most commonly go to New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston.

Still, Idania Ramirez, 21, applied for jobs in Buffalo – not her native Bronx – when she graduated from Daemen last spring. She now works as a legal assistant for a local law firm, having fallen for the region’s low prices, parks and “really good ice cream.”

Likewise Lauren Reczek, 22, who grew up in Cheektowaga and works in the student engagement office at Trocaire College. Visions of life in a downtown Buffalo loft forestalled her plans to move to Boston or Los Angeles.

“The climate has completely changed in the city since I graduated from high school,” she said. “It’s become a better place to start out. There’s more to do. It’s more open.”

For his part, Sheldon Anderson, the Buffalo State grad, says he hopes more students give Buffalo a chance. Since graduating with a master’s degree in public administration, Anderson has gotten married, started a job at the state Department of Transportation, and become something of an informal mentor to other Buff State students contemplating a future in the region.

He would like to see his alma mater offer a class to sell transplants on Western New York. It’s good for students, he argues, and it’s critical for the region’s future.

“There’s talent walking out the door every year,” he said. “We need to retain more than 50 of every 100 students.”

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