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Reverse Baltimore's population slide: Retain more college grads

Reverse Baltimore's population slide: Retain more college grads
Da'Kuawn Johnson of Baltimore hugs his chemistry professor Tara Carpenter at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County commencement in 2017. (Baltimore Sun)

On the December day in 2016 when Catherine Pugh took the oath of office, I offered 10 suggestions for Baltimore’s new mayor, including this one: “If you need to make a decision that gives you pause for an ethical consideration — a conflict of interest, for instance — stop and think. If the situation feels hinky, it probably is. Get legal counsel. Get an opinion from the ethics board. As much as I like when Sun reporters get scoops, I don't want to be reading about ethical lapses in the newspaper.”

Oh, well. So much for that.

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But there was another suggestion that, in light of the city’s recent losses in population and its constant need for a broader tax base, the next mayor ought to make a priority: Retaining college students.

To some extent, that’s already happening. By 2012, the percentage of college graduates who said they planned to stay in Baltimore had more than doubled from a low of 19 percent in 2003, according to a survey by the Baltimore Collegetown Network. The Brookings Institution put the rate at 44 percent in 2015, comparable to the graduate retention in Pittsburgh and the District of Columbia, but well behind New York, Chicago and Houston. Another study, by the City Observatory think tank, showed impressive growth in the number of college-educated people, ages 25 to 34, living near downtown.

So I thought it would be wise for the mayor to build on that by giving a series of talks at the Baltimore universities to ask students to consider putting down roots here and getting involved in building a better city. I like how Fagan Harris, the CEO of Baltimore Corps, puts it. He challenges smart, civic-conscious millennials to consider Baltimore "the best place in the world to change the world."

A mayor needs to support businesses — small and large, startup and established — so that there's opportunity for college graduates to land decent jobs. But there needs to be a direct appeal to the students themselves, and before they make post-graduate plans. The mayor should promote the urban amenities that young people desire and drive home the fact that, even with some college debt, graduates can afford to buy a house here. And Baltimore has neighborhoods that provide a sense of community you can’t find in your smartphone.

Thiru Vignarajah, the attorney and former prosecutor who announced his candidacy for mayor last week, thinks the city could offer tuition help to high school graduates who attend Maryland colleges and guarantee low-interest loans for Baltimoreans who study out of state, with loan forgiveness if the student returns and lives in the city for five years after graduation. It sounds expensive — Vignarajah says he is still working on a plan to finance it, including a possible public-private endowment — but this is the kind of thinking the city needs.

Obviously, the first priority should be the public schools and getting more Baltimore boys and girls ready for the next step in life, either college or a trade. But, since the universities educate thousands of young adults every year, recruiting them to be the next generation of Baltimoreans is a common-sense, if overlooked, idea.

That’s the thing about fixing the city: There’s a lot to do, and you have to do it all. Attracting 21st Century businesses, and the capital to support them, demands an educated workforce, and you don’t have that without better public schools, and you don’t have better public schools without a solid tax base, and you don’t have a solid tax base without a stable or growing population, and you don’t have a stable or growing population without a safe, well-run city with excellent services for its longtime residents and businesses, and amenities that appeal to newcomers.

So what’s the potential for getting more millennials and the next generation, Generation Z, to buy houses and live and work here?

Annie Milli is all over that as executive director of Live Baltimore. A lot of millennials don’t want to be bothered with owning a house, and many don’t think they can afford it. But, if Baltimore has anything going for it, it is house prices and first-time home-buyer incentives. “Baltimore City’s median home price was around $150,000 in 2018,” Milli points out. “That’s a full $100,000 less than our closest-priced county, Baltimore County, at $250,000.” The median home price in D.C. was around $525,000.

Single women, in particular, have been bullish about buying into Baltimore. They own about 24 percent of all owner-occupied homes in the city, according to LendingTree. “In my experience, millennial women have no expectation to be taken care of by a man or of having children before 30,” Milli says. “They aren’t waiting to find a mate before they start their life. They no longer see having their own home as a deterrent to beginning a relationship. In fact, many people become accidental landlords in Baltimore because both partners own a home before coupling up. Given Baltimore’s affordability, women find themselves able to buy here at a younger age and earlier in their careers than they might in other areas.”

Of course, getting buy-in from more singles and college graduates won’t immediately lead to large household sizes, something Peter Duvall, community revitalization coordinator for Strong City Baltimore, points to as a major factor in the city’s population decline. Household size has been dropping rapidly, he says, accounting for population loss even as new apartments have sprouted at a rate of 2,000 annually. But Duvall predicts the rapid decline in household size should bottom out in a few years.

So, if the city can get its act together on crime and schools — the “eternal ifs” — maybe households of 1.0 persons become households of 2.0 persons and maybe even 3.0 or 4.0 persons, and the city will grow again. More on that in a future column.

Next on rebuilding Baltimore’s population: Making Lexington Market a great good place for everybody.

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