Brain gain starts with nurturing a desire for purpose

March 7, 2023 3:00 am

Creighton health sciences students learn new ultrasound techniques in the classroom. (Courtesy of Creighton University)

Brain drain continues to be a present and persistent threat to the success of Nebraska. It is abundantly clear we must do a better job of recruiting and retaining individuals who can fill high-need, high-skill jobs. However, in our discussions of “stopping brain drain,” I believe we have done a disservice by not talking enough about “fostering brain gain” and how it starts with nurturing a desire for purpose.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research recently reported that 65% of jobs in Nebraska will soon require some level of higher education. However, only 33% of Nebraskans have at least a bachelor’s degree leaving nearly 80,000 jobs unfilled. This is why Gov. Jim Pillen stated in his State of the State address that Nebraska needs to recruit and retain more graduates; this then raises the question of “how” we make this happen.

First, it starts by listening to Gen Z and what they are telling us they want: a high-quality education combined with a sense of purpose. At Creighton, as a faith-based institution, our students are seeking the expertise of our faculty in equal measure to an environment where they can practice discernment; engage in community service; step into clinical and internship relationships; and conduct applied research, all of which provide hands-on opportunities to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems before they even earn their degree.

This helps explain why Creighton draws 80% of our student body from outside Nebraska and why nearly half of those students stay here to work or continue their education. The result is a net brain gain of highly skilled individuals who are contributing to the economic and social growth of our state.

Creighton’s health care graduates are an example of this success. A nursing shortage across Nebraska has left 73 of our state’s 93 counties medically underserved, and Creighton is working effectively to fill those gaps with 6,500 of our health sciences alumni currently practicing across Nebraska and another 3,800 projected to be added through 2040, just from an inflow of out-of-state students.

Outside the health care industry, high-pay, high-demand, high-skill jobs are being filled by Creighton students, 99% of whom are finding jobs in their field or choosing to further their education within six months of graduation. With a graduation rate of 79%, which far exceeds our national peers in the private and public sectors, Creighton students are paying back their loans faster and are contributing more quickly to Nebraska communities in meaningful and impactful ways.

This calls to mind Creighton alumni Josh Hansen, Christopher Pritza and Emma Zeratsky, graduates of our paramedicine program who, in addition to being active professionals, are members of the Valley Fire Department, a 100% volunteer organization providing fire and rescue services to Nebraska citizens. Last year, the department became one of the first volunteer rescue services in the nation to use a new life-saving ultrasound technology after piloting a concept the students first learned about in classrooms at Creighton.

These statistics and examples are not meant to argue that private higher education is the solution to Nebraska’s brain drain, because there is no solitary cure to this crisis. However, I firmly believe that higher education in any form is most successful when it invests in students by giving them the time, resources and connections to grow socially and emotionally as well as academically.

For our state to truly prosper, we must be responsive to our students’ desire to work for and with others. This is Creighton University’s commitment to fostering brain gain in the state of Nebraska. Over the last eight years, I’ve seen that getting students to our state is a great first step, but if we are to be truly successful, there must also be an investment in helping them find the meaning for why they want to live here, launch careers and put down roots.

Without providing compelling reasons for Nebraska graduates to stay, which higher education is in position to achieve in collaboration with our statewide partners, more degrees earned in our state will only lead to more degrees leaving it as well.

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Daniel Hendrickson
Daniel Hendrickson

The Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, Ph.D., is the 25th president of Creighton University, a role he has held since 2015. During Hendrickson’s tenure, Creighton has seen enrollment grow to more than 8,700 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students across nine schools and colleges. With campuses in Omaha, Grand Island, Dominican Republic, and Phoenix, Creighton is one of the largest Catholic health professions educators in the U.S.