The New York Times recently reported on the University of Washington’s superstar computer science program. Apparently, it’s one of the best in the nation and is attracting major attention from Silicon Valley.
What stood out to me, however, is the program’s effect on Seattle. Though the headline suggests that many UW alums are heading down to California, the pipeline is moving in both directions:
[…] executives have begun streaming up the coast to Seattle, fueled by a talent arms race for programmers. Facebook, Zynga and Google have opened offices in the area, trying to woo U.W. engineers who’d rather live here, where taxes and home prices are lower, even if mist and dark skies envelop the scenery for much of the year.
Significantly, many of the gradutes also stay in Washington after graduation:
More than 80 percent of the program’s students come from Washington State, and the same percentage end up staying in the state after graduating, even if they work for companies based in Silicon Valley.
This process can be a risky game. If the program starts exporting too many graduates, for example, Seattle, Washington and UW start losing their investment. Some people have argued that that’s what happens in Boston, where high housing costs drive highly educated gradutes away.
But so far, UW’s computer science program appears to be a major economic force in Seattle. That makes sense, and Forbes noted a similar phenomenon when it crowned Provo the best place in America for business.
What does all this mean?
For starters, it means that Provo is in a good economic position because it also has a large university. However, it also suggests that civic leaders interested in economic development should strive to work with BYU — perhaps a fundamentally quixotic task, but one worth trying anyway — to further develop programs that bring prestige to the school and prosperity to the community.
As UW shows, retention is also a major goal. I’d be shocked to hear that 80 percent of graduates from any BYU program stay in Provo, which means the community is losing resources by training people and sending them away.
Even more broadly, Provo should consider longterm increases to its higher education system. I made a similar point in May, using Greensboro as my example at that time, but the example provided by UW is even more dramatic. In the end, then success is often defined by educational opportunities.