Michigan State University alumna Emily Zuker, left, and Leah Sallen watch a Spartan football game at O'Malley's West last year in Chicago. (Aynsley Floyd / Associated Press)
Chicago -- Gov. Jennifer Granholm must see Emily Zuker in her nightmares.
Young, bright and college-educated, the Michigan State University grad got her degree in 2006 and immediately moved to Chicago -- now home to the largest concentration of recent MSU grads in the nation.
"It's just like being back at Michigan State," said Zuker, 25.
Except that it's not in the state of Michigan.
At a time when Granholm is pushing to double the number of college grads, the number of grads leaving the state has doubled instead.
Half of Michigan's college grads now leave the state within a year of graduation, taking with them their diplomas and the talent needed to help rebuild Michigan's economy.
"Every time we lose a student, we're losing part of the talent pool the state needs," said Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan. "The states with the most talent win."
Green-and-white Spartan flags fly in the doorway of O'Malley's West. A neon MSU football helmet perches above the bar. Autographed jerseys of Mateen Cleaves, who led the school to its last NCAA basketball title, and former quarterback Drew Stanton hang on the walls near a big-screen TV that always shows MSU games.
One of the most die-hard Spartan sports bars is west of campus -- 225 miles west, in the trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago.
There are more recent MSU grads in Chicago than in any other metro area -- including any community in Michigan. While the Windy City has always been a destination for Spartan grads, the number going there -- and other vibrant urban centers such as Minneapolis and New York -- is growing.
The number leaving the state has doubled since 2001, from 24 percent to 49 percent, according to a school survey.
Michigan-native grads of the University of Michigan are even more likely to leave -- 53 percent left in 2008, according to U-M.
By contrast, a similar survey at North Carolina State, found only 30 percent of graduates left North Carolina.
In some high-demand fields, the talent hemorrhaging is even worse.
"There's no longer a glut of 50 of them (engineering grads) going to GM every year," said Garth Motschenbacher, director of employer relations in MSU's College of Engineering.
Granholm's goal in danger
Other Michigan colleges are witnessing the same exodus. A first-of-its-kind survey of all 2007 Michigan public university graduates, conducted by Michigan Future, Inc., revealed that half of grads left the state within a year.
"People are just starting to care about this," said Michigan Future President Lou Glazer. "They're just starting to understand that college grads drive the economy."
Saying that college grad rates must increase for Michigan to remain competitive, Granholm set a goal in 2004 of doubling the number of college graduates.
Since then, the number graduating from Michigan colleges has inched upward from 38,615 in 2004 to 41,250 in 2008.
But the burgeoning exodus of college grads has wiped out that gain.
The biggest beneficiaries of Granholm's efforts so far have been states like Washington, where officials bluntly describe the influx of thousands of college-educated workers from Michigan as a cost-effective approach to education.
"That we can attract those people (with degrees) is a benefit to the state," said Washington state Rep. Glenn Anderson, the ranking Republican on the higher education committee. "We are importing intellectual capital at a very low cost to ourselves."
So many college grads have flooded into Washington to work for companies such as Boeing and Microsoft, that Anderson has had trouble pushing for increased higher education funding for in-state students.
Indeed, since 2000, Washington has jumped from 18th to 12th in the nation in the percentage of adults with a degree. Michigan fell from 30th to 35th.
"We're getting a lot of people, bright people, and that's good," said State Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett.
You don't need a college degree to know what happens to Michigan if the trend continues. "If we don't get younger and better educated," Boulus said, "we're going to get poorer."
Large tax impact looms
Twelve percent of the members of the MSU Class of 2007 live in Chicago -- three times more than live in Detroit, according to data from MSU and Michigan Future.
For the 22,000 MSU alumni who live in the Chicago metro area, "psychologically, it's not like they moved away," said Kelley Bishop, MSU director of career services. "Of course, from a taxpayer perspective, it's quite a distance."
On average nationally, those earning bachelor's degrees today can expect to earn $900,000 more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma, according to the Census Bureau.
Multiply that by Michigan's net loss of 18,000 people with college degrees in 2007 alone, and Michigan faces a devastating future loss in tax revenue.
Though he doesn't have data, Bishop says he believes many college grads move back to Michigan eventually. But other studies show that if expats don't move back before they marry and have children, they won't at all.
"If they're in Chicago and get married, they're more likely to move to a Chicago suburb than back to Michigan," Glazer said.
In fact, 63 percent of college grads who had moved out of the state said they had no intention of ever moving back.
"When the state is trying to foster higher education because we know business follows talent, what do you do when your best and brightest won't stay?" asked a frustrated Kurt Metzger, demographer and director of the Detroit Area Community Indicators System, a Detroit-based think tank.
"We're in a fight for college graduates," Metzger said, "and we're losing."