State officials in Mississippi have long wrung their hands over “brain drain,” the term used to describe an exodus of educated young people from a particular place. But over the years, efforts by lawmakers to address the phenomenon have fallen short — and the phenomenon has continued. In 2020, the U.S. Census showed Mississippi was one of three states to lose population over the last decade.
Now, Shad White, the only statewide elected official who is a millennial, is hoping to bring more attention to brain drain in Mississippi. On Monday, White announced an initiative he hopes can play a small role in combating the problem: The Stay in the ‘Sip Scholarship, which will fund up to three years of college tuition, books and fees for one accounting major if they agree to work at the auditor’s office for at least two years after college graduation.
The scholarship is also a prelude to a series of reports the auditor’s office will produce over the next few months that look at the economic toll of brain drain on Mississippi, White said.
The genesis of the program is twofold, White told Mississippi Today. White has experienced brain drain personally. He left Mississippi when he graduated college. Though he returned, many of his friends have not. Anecdotally, White has also noticed a dearth of young accountants in the auditor’s office and in private certified public accountant firms. Rather than stay in Mississippi, these young accountants are leaving for state agencies and CPAs in growing Southern cities, like Dallas or Atlanta.
“This is not just a problem for the state of Mississippi,” White said. “This is a general problem that is going to affect the state auditor’s office specifically.”
On any given day, White said the auditor’s office has a staff of 135 people when, ideally, he’d like to employ closer to 145.
“We have the money on hand to hire more auditors, we have the work to do in the auditor’s office, especially in light of the COVID stimulus,” he said. “Our challenge is finding talented people with the skills we need to come and fill those jobs.”
The scholarship, which has been in the works for months, is not based on data or research about the effectiveness of incentive programs on combating brain drain. Rather, the scholarship was loosely modeled on one that White received in undergrad at the University of Mississippi — the Truman Scholarship, a federally funded program that incentivizes students to work in the public sector.
The goal was to create a program that would be effective in encouraging accounting students to stay in Mississippi, said Logan Reeves, spokesperson for the auditor’s office.
“At the end of the day, we could’ve created a program that gave everybody a partial scholarship of $5. Well who cares? It’s $5,” Reeves said. “For our part, it was important for us to … generate some excitement among college students to really convince them it was worth their while to participate.”
Just one student will receive the scholarship this year, but White hopes to expand the program to three to five accounting students at any given time.
The money for the scholarship comes from the auditor’s general fund, and it will vary each year depending on the cost of tuition for the participating student. The scholarship is permitted under the office’s statutory authority, Reeves said, and is similar to internships in other state agencies.
Over the years, lawmakers and nonprofit groups have released reports looking at the state’s brain drain. Though the trend in Mississippi is particularly bad, the reasons why young people leave are not unique. In general, Americans are moving from rural and post-industrial states to ones with vibrant metropolitan areas, according to a 2019 congressional report. This can lead to economic stagnation, such as not having enough people to fill crucial jobs like teaching and nursing, not generating or creating businesses that create the kinds of cities that attract more people to the state.
White’s office hopes the scholarship, along with the reports, will keep this discussion in the public and push Mississippi lawmakers to act to address the state’s brain drain. Specifically, White would like to see lawmakers consider programs similar to the one his office is starting, but targeted at other professions like computer science.
White would like to see lawmakers act right now, rather than wait to gather data before creating a program.
“We’re bleeding our millennial population,” he said. “We just can’t form a government study committee to sit and navel gaze about this for five, 10 years. We’ve gotta act right now.”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.