City promoters begin push to keep college students after graduation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every year Baltimore gets a shot at convincing thousands of bright young college students that their temporary abode could make a great home for life.

And, every year, thousands of graduates leave, vowing never to return.

Now, community leaders have decided to view that mass exodus as an opportunity. They hope to use the four years that students spend here to hook them on Baltimore's charm and opportunities.

"We don't want them leaving," said Elizabeth Toole, director of the Baltimore Collegetown Network, a consortium of 13 colleges and universities in Baltimore. "We want them to stay. If we can capture even a small percentage of these students and get them to love Baltimore and maybe stay here, think what a difference that could make."

It's not an unreasonable hope. Some do stay and help spark life in the city.

"I think I may be in the area for my entire life. I've grown to love Baltimore. As I've gotten older, Baltimore became a part of me," said Omari Ruiz, 24, who graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in May with a bachelor's degree in information systems.

Ruiz said he recently accepted a job as assistant director of marketing and promotion in the UMBC athletics department.

But there are lots of others who get away. Too many, say the city's promoters.

A recent, unscientific study conducted by the Collegetown Network showed that 43 percent of Baltimore-area students who responded to an Internet survey, said they definitely or probably, would not remain in Baltimore after graduation. An additional 36 percent reported being undecided about whether they would stay.

That means that about 79 percent of the college students in the area have no plans to live here or definitely know they are leaving.

Those numbers don't surprise Monica Lai, a 19-year-old junior at the Johns Hopkins University.

"From a teen-ager's standpoint, Baltimore doesn't come across as your ideal living place," said the public health major from Lawrence, N.J. "It's not one of the places people dream of living. From my perspective, Baltimore is that in between place. It's not quite that big city, and it's not that small, quiet town. Baltimore is floating in between."

Goucher College student Lindsay K. Johnson, is somewhat more bullish on Baltimore - at least for the short term.

"The likelihood of me being here for the next 10 years is pretty high," said the 20-year-old from Brevard, N.C.

Johnson, who is a theater education major, has worked with city schoolchildren - something that has both drawn her to Baltimore and troubled her as she has witnessed its layers of poverty.

"It was hard for me to work in a school that had lead in the water and that didn't have money in the budget for books," said Johnson who worked at public school in Hampden last year teaching health, sports and current events. "It was just a concept that was foreign to me."

Collegetown Network officials didn't know what to expect when they offered their survey on the Internet for 2 1/2 weeks in February. Ultimately, they received 1,589 responses from students at 12 of the 13 participating institutions.

The survey, released this week, was the first ever attempt to assess opinions of Baltimore among area college students. It will be used to help create programs to enhance student life and awareness of Baltimore.

Even before it was officially released, the survey's findings had sparked interest.

The Downtown Partnership met recently with the Collegetown Network to talk about the results and about ways to educate students about Baltimore, said Michael A. Evitts, a spokesman for the Partnership.

"The value of this Collegetown survey is that it pulls into focus what a lot of people have suspected anecdotally, which is we need to do a better job of showing Baltimore college students the advantages of living and working in the city after graduation," he said.

He hopes that the report will spur foundation and private sector support for a marketing effort targeting college students.

"College students are a big part of downtown's economic vitality," Evitts said. "A lot of downtown's new economic growth is being fueled by these new restaurants and lifestyle type businesses that appeal to college students and young professionals. The college students of today are the young professionals of tomorrow."

The study showed that Baltimore area college students taste city life on a regular basis, with 50 percent going off campus more than once a week. They chose movie theaters, the Inner Harbor and Towson Town Center as their top three off-campus destinations.

Twenty-five percent said they wished that the city had a better transportation system, including a metro/subway station and shuttle service to take students to other campuses and downtown. The Collegetown Network has created a transportation network among six of the participating schools which saw 65,000 riders during the 2002 school year.

Safety was the second highest concern among area students. Nearly 20 percent said they wished Baltimore's crime rate was lower.

When asked what they felt were the key factors in choosing a place to live, 45 percent identified affordable and safe housing. But the students ranked Baltimore as average in quality of living, unfavorable in safety and thought the region was expensive.

Laura Yarborough, a 20-year-old junior at Maryland Institute College of Art, lives in Bolton Hill and considers Baltimore affordable. Even if she ends up going to graduate school at George Washington University as she is considering, she plans to stay in the city.

"It's one of the cheapest places to live around," she said. "I could definitely see myself staying."

Avery Smith, 23, graduated from UMBC in May with a bachelor's degree in graphic design. He decided to stay in the area and is moving to a neighborhood near Mount Vernon, next month, where he will operate a business out of his home. Smith said he will do Web design and create graphics for brochures, business cards and signs.

"I had no idea that I would stay here," he said yesterday. "I realized I have my strongest network in this area. If I went somewhere else, I'd be taking a step back."

Unlike some other colleges and universities, UMBC boasts that 77 percent of its alumni continue to live and work in Maryland. About 54 percent are in the Greater Baltimore region and about 25 percent in the city.

Baltimore is more a place to pass through for Jon Morra, 20, a Johns Hopkins junior majoring in bio-medical engineering who wants to go to graduate school elsewhere.

"I think I'd like to expand beyond Baltimore," said Morra, who is from Basking Ridge, N.J. "Other than the Inner Harbor, there aren't really places I'd like to go other than maybe an individual restaurant. It's not a place that I'd just walk around like New York. Some of it's safety, but it's also I don't feel like I'm going to turn a corner and find something interesting."

Julia Finkel, 20, a junior at Johns Hopkins majoring in public health, said she has no firm plans to stay in Baltimore but neither has she ruled that option out.

"It depends on how I'm feeling at the end of senior year," said Finkel, who is from Silver Spring. "It depends on the opportunities that are available."

If city promoters have their way, those opportunities will be abundant and hard to ignore.

"We hope that when the region realizes there are more than 100,000 college students in the area, they'll want to reach out to them," Toole said. "I think it's important that when students come here, that the city is welcoming to them."

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