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What we can do about students leaving Philadelphia after graduation

01 Jul 2011
by Alex Hillman

Retention is a big problem everywhere, and here in Philadelphia it’s no exception.

Here’s a few patterns I hear talked about quite a bit.

  • “Students leave after graduation.”
  • “Talent leaves to work for better companies.”
  • “Companies leave for better talent.”
  • “Companies leave for easier access to funding.”

I’m going focus on the first one today.

“Students Leave After Graduation”

It’s easy to blame the universities. It’s easy to blame the companies. It’s easy to blame the government.

But it’s hard to make a change to the landscape that has an impact on something as big as over 50% of the students leaving after graduation. While the rate has improved in the last 8 years (down from over 70% in 2004), there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

I have the advantage of being someone who thinks about this problem, and still being relatively close to the age of a recent graduate. I have some insight into what they care about. And while “is there a good-paying job” is extremely important, not having to build out a network of friends, colleagues, and mentors after having spent 2-4+ years of university is just as much – if not slightly more – of a motivator.

So what if, instead of pointing fingers at the universities and the companies and the government, we built between them. What if, before students graduated, we guided them out of their classrooms and into the city, encouraging them to complete their academic work outside of the walls of the academic institution.

In speaking with students and academic leadership alike about Indy Hall, the story that seems to resonate the most with them is thinking of Indy Hall as a library. A place where you can go and research, do work, find inspiration, hustle, and collaborate. The only difference is that the knowledge isn’t being stored in shelves full of books, but instead, in the brains of people working in the careers that students aspire to have for themselves.

Among the problems with college internships that I’ve seen is that is it’s viewed as a transaction between a student and a company. It’s impersonal. People don’t have loyalty to a company like they have loyalty to a person who’s shown them attention.

If we can create a more organic mentorship path to the exceptional local professionals in Philadelphia – not companies, but the individuals – for students before they graduate, we’ll keep more students after graduation. Good mentors will help them interact not just in the professional capacity, but help them experience Philadelphia as a whole. The relationships can self-select based on interest, rather than “opportunity”.

Building a relationship with a mentor before the transaction of them being your employer can be wildly empowering.

And of course, a good mentor is going to help guide and prepare their young Skywalker to be able to find their path to post-graduate success – however they define it for themselves, in terms of joining a company, or going out on their own.

There’s a secondary effect of approaching things this way: students on this mentorship path will become a part of the effort to retain their friends, as well as inspire under/upper-classmen (and women) around them.

We’ve already seen the positive results of a process like this at Indy Hall, both in terms of our members, but also our interns and office managers.

The ripple effects of this approach helps ensure that the initial effort is sustainable, and is likely to take on a life of its own.

It’s also independent of “political” agendas – if we abstract away companies and their motives by focusing on the individuals and THEIR motives, the relationships are natural and human.

We avoid it being about someone being self-employed, starting a company, or getting a job.

Instead, I want to put the focus is on bringing people who could love Philadelphia together with people who already do.

Over the next year, we’re going to prototype this interaction at Indy Hall via a program based on these principals called “Indy Study Hall”. Students will be able to use Indy Hall as a home-base for “getting work done”, just like our members do. Some adjustments will be made to the experience to make it more conducive to students’ lifestyles, but we’ll also be baking in the opportunities for interaction with members who have the interest in becoming a mentor.

We’ve already proven that our “trusted relationships before transaction” works. And we know that it’s not so unique as to be an anomaly. Now we just need to get this practice it in the hands of students before the business world has an opportunity to teach them the bad-habit alternative.

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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.