Gabby Gomez Martinez, right, and Kenidy Irvine talk with a recruiter from Charles Schwab during the Career and Internship Fair in Nebraska Union on Feb. 27, 2023. Nebraska is continually losing more college graduates than it gains as residents seek job opportunities elsewhere. Photo by Craig Chandler/University Communication.

It’s been nearly half a decade since Jackson Cutsor last lived in Nebraska.

Since graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2018 with a degree in electrical engineering, the Omaha native, who also spent time in Central City, has bounced around middle America working in the renewable energy sector, taking a job in Kansas City right out of college before eventually moving to Denver.

Cutsor said he has no plans of moving back, either.

Screenshot 20230509 183001 3 227x300 - Experts, former residents offer varied reasons for Nebraska's brain drain as rates continue to rise
Jackson Cutsor. Courtesy photo.

The abundance of opportunities outside of the state have certainly been a major factor for him, but he also pointed to an array of other issues.

“The only thing that is attractive for me (in Nebraska) is that my family’s still there and cost of living is still cheaper,” he said. “I don’t really see myself coming back, especially given the fact that it’s still politically conservative; I like smoking my weed. I like being in the mountains. I like skiing. I like having events to go to.”

Cutsor is just one of many college-educated Nebraskans who have left the state at growing rates after the past decade.

In the span of 11 years, from 2010 to 2021, the state lost 45,000 residents ages 25 years or older with a bachelor’s degree, according to the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research findings.

And there aren’t enough degree-holders coming in to replace them, either. According to the same research, the state reported a net loss of 1,104 degree-holding residents in 2010. That yearly figure more than doubled in 2019, and following the onset of the pandemic, it quadrupled to 4,548 in 2021.

braindraingraphic - Experts, former residents offer varied reasons for Nebraska's brain drain as rates continue to rise
College graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher have continued to leave the state, with the trend reaching a fever pitch at the onset of pandemic. Graphic courtesy of Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

While the center’s findings demonstrate the broader trends leading Nebraskans out of the state, the data does not specify factors for younger graduates in particular. Researchers, legislators and former residents all shared somewhat different outlooks on why the state is losing so many right after graduation.

While the explanations for the ongoing “brain drain” in the state abound, the UNO research shows that one-fourth of respondents listed job opportunities elsewhere as their primary reason for leaving.

reasonforleavinggraphic - Experts, former residents offer varied reasons for Nebraska's brain drain as rates continue to rise
In a survey conducted by University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers, one-fourth of respondents said they were leaving the state for job opportunities elsewhere. Graphic courtesy of UNO Center for Public Affairs Research.

Josie Gatti Schafer, director for the Center of Public Affairs Research who presented the findings to the University of Nebraska Board of Regents in February, said all other reasons are secondary.

“You will get lots of anecdotes: ‘I don’t like the culture, I don’t like the weather, I don’t like the taxes. …’ Those are all probably still very true,” Schafer said during an interview. “(But) you can’t enjoy the weather and the culture and the values and the entertainments and the restaurants unless you have a job that allows you to do so.”

poggioliheadshot - Experts, former residents offer varied reasons for Nebraska's brain drain as rates continue to rise
Julia Poggioli. Courtesy photo

For one recent migrant from the state, though, finding a job elsewhere was just one part of a much broader picture.

After graduating from UNL last spring with a bachelor’s in psychology, Julia Poggioli, moved to Sacramento to join a year-long public schooling program as a counselor, following her passion for working with children and young adults.

Although the Kearney native  said she wasn’t worried about being able to find a job in Nebraska, she said the experiences she could find outside of Nebraska were just as important to her as the opportunities.

“I needed to kind of get away from the safety net (or family and friends),” she said. “I didn’t move to California for the money or anything, I moved for the experience and the professional development.”

Furthermore, she said the lack of cultural diversity in Nebraska, coupled with the dominion of conservative politics in the state, left her feeling trapped. In Sacramento, she finds herself around like-minded people despite them being from different walks of life.

Andres Ramirez, a 21-year-old Mexican-American electrician in Omaha, said he has considered leaving the state. He said the lack of diversity even in one of the state’s largest cities has bred resentment toward minorities, which he experiences regularly at work.

“It’s a predominantly white job here,” Ramirez said. “They’ll see that my skin’s darker, they see that my hair’s long, they see I’m tall and I’m young and immediately their image of me is so … low in this industry.”

IMG 20230509 180426 1 - Experts, former residents offer varied reasons for Nebraska's brain drain as rates continue to rise
Andres Ramirez. Courtesy photo.

Ramirez was raised in Omaha by two parents who illegally crossed into America in their early 20s before eventually moving to the affluent West Omaha and establishing citizenship when he was in the 7th grade. He said he’s experienced prejudice his entire life.

He described being sent to the office nearly every day in elementary school at a time when he still couldn’t speak English well, and his teacher seemed to harbor resentment toward him as a result. Later in life as he’s grown older, he’s become accustomed to garnering stares wherever he goes.

Despite his negative experiences, Ramirez said he’s determined to carve out a living for himself in Omaha, living with his girlfriend and their three cats in a duplex in South Omaha.

“I’ve already had so many experiences of racism within my life … whatever anyone says to me, it just doesn’t hurt in that type of way,” Ramirez said. “It’s not gonna stop me from being me.”

Nonetheless, Ramirez is frustrated with the stubborn conservativeness of the state, which he said can sometimes stand in the way of social progress.

“There’s a whole community of people who are trying to move Nebraska forward, and we’re up against these drones who just vote for that damn ‘R,’” he said.

Politics was another factor in driving Poggioli from the state. Living in the electorally deep-red Nebraska, she said she often felt that her vote didn’t matter, further disillusioning her connection to the state where she was raised.

Marijuana legalization is one such issue where many voters in Nebraska, especially young people, have long felt unheard, according to Morgan Ryan, a student activist with Nebraska Families 4 Medical Cannabis, a non-profit that advocates for the “right to access safe and effective cannabis for medical use,” according to the organization’s website.

IMG 20230510 161205 196x300 - Experts, former residents offer varied reasons for Nebraska's brain drain as rates continue to rise
Morgan Ryan. Courtesy photo.

Multiple efforts to legalize medical marijuana over the last three years have failed. The state Supreme Court killed a successful 2020 ballot initiative due to discrepancies in the language, and a grassroots petition drive in 2022 fell short of the threshold to get it on the ballot after thousands of signatures were invalidated by the Secretary of State’s office. Similar efforts in the Legislature have fallen short.

The movement’s struggles have been indicative of a broader concern among residents that she’s observed during her advocacy work, Ryan said.

“I think medical cannabis is just one instance in a series of instances of our lawmakers just not caring what their constituents, or young people, want,” she said. “That’s a very unfortunate sentiment to see so broadly in our electorate.

Ryan, an Omaha native who attends Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, said that she still intends to maintain residence in Nebraska at least until medical marijuana is authorized.

Nonetheless, it’s left her in a frustrating position while fighting for an issue she passionately believes in.

“Even when our government disappoints us, we still love the people, we still believe they deserve better,” Ryan said.

dist11 200x300 - Experts, former residents offer varied reasons for Nebraska's brain drain as rates continue to rise
Terrell McKinney. Courtesy photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication

State Sen. Terrell McKinney, whose district encompasses sections of downtown and North Omaha, said he thinks part of the problem is that young people aren’t represented in the state government.

“A lot of people in (the state leadership) are from the Baby Boomer generation that are not in touch with what needs to be done,” said McKinney, a 32-year-old Midland University graduate.

McKinney sees the Legislature’s focus on bills banning transgender healthcare and abortion as just the tip of the iceberg. Statewide messaging, epitomized by the much-derided “it’s not for everyone” slogan that was unveiled in 2018, have also served to drive more people away, he said.

Also influencing young graduates’ decision-making, McKinney said, are the universal aftershocks of the pandemic.

“I think people were able to sit down and say, ‘What do I really want in life?’” he said.

Many are working in career fields unrelated to their degrees and see no chance of upward mobility, he said, with many residents from older generations dominating high-paying positions. Coupled with a gradual erosion of the state’s cost of living and middling entertainment options, young graduates see few reasons to stick around.

He said the only way to address the issue is by passing legislation that reverses these trends or gives people a reason to visit the state, including everything from making homeownership more attainable for young people to building an amusement park on the level of Kansas City’s Worlds of Fun.

While an amusement park might help to draw in more tourists, Poggioli said the state will be hard-pressed to overcome the reputation it has established as one of the least-desirable destinations for young people.

“The places that get hyped up on social media are all the coastal states (like California and New York),” she said. “Especially that feeling of graduating college and wanting that sense of adventure and everything, you want to be part of what you see.”