College students laugh and pose on a bridge over the Schuylkill River with the Philly skyline behind them. (Olivia Brosky/Campus Philly)

Campus Philly released our latest study on the retention of college graduates in the region this past September. Titled Philadelphia Momentum, it shares a story of unprecedented growth and success. 

But this wasn’t always the case for the region — and it may not hold true in the years ahead. 

Flashback to the early 2000s: Philly was facing a serious talent problem. Jobs were increasingly requiring college degrees, but only 17% of Philadelphians held a bachelor’s or higher. And while the region had more than 100 unique institutions of higher education, attracting more than 300K college students annually, only 25% of graduates were choosing to stay in the region to launch their careers.

Recognizing the challenges this presented, stakeholders coalesced around a pressing question: How can we entice more college graduates to stay and contribute to Philadelphia’s economic growth in the 21st century? 

A central outcome of this effort was the founding of Campus Philly, a nonprofit with the mission to fuel economic growth in the region by encouraging college students to explore, live, and work in the  Philadelphia area. Campus Philly organized in-person career and professional development events, launched a website to promote internships and careers in the region, and partnered with an increasing number of colleges and universities.

Fast forward to present day: Campus Philly continues to focus on the attraction, engagement, and retention of college students and recent graduates throughout the region. We collaborate closely with higher education institutions, businesses, and civic partners to connect college students to the incredible assets and opportunities that our region holds. We aim to help young people find their fit in Philadelphia and make a conscious decision to remain here after graduation — a goal at which we have been remarkably successful.  

Students at Campus Philly’s 2016 Inclusive Leadership Conference. (Brian Green/Campus Philly)

Over the last two decades, the retention rate of college graduates in the region has soared to an impressive 50%. 

Philadelphia boasts an extraordinary 155% growth rate in the number of bachelor’s degree-holders aged 25 to 34, surpassing every major city. Further, 51% of all 25-to-34-year-olds in Philadelphia now hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

The economic impact of these degree-holders is also significant, with collective earnings reaching over $29.1 billion in 2021, contributing to an annual economic output of $11.8 billion in the Philadelphia region. This financial infusion supports thousands of additional jobs and generates substantial tax revenue. 

While this growth and momentum is remarkable, looming questions arise regarding our region’s ability to sustain it. 

Generation Z, the demographic cohort born between 1996 and 2011, is notably smaller than the preceding millennial generation, and the Baby Boomers currently retiring. Campus Philly’s core mission to retain college-educated individuals within the region remains as imperative as ever. However, it is just one facet of an innovative and comprehensive strategy our region must adopt to realize equitable growth over the next decade. 

We see this strategy framed across three dimensions.

  • Building local talent: Increasing educational attainment and post-secondary opportunities for local Philadelphia residents. 
  • Retaining talent: Persuading an even larger percentage of graduates from the many higher education institutions in the region to launch their careers locally.
  • Attracting talent: Drawing graduates from institutions beyond the region to bolster Greater Philadelphia’s economic growth. 

Executing this strategy calls for a collaborative effort, uniting a diverse coalition of regional organizations spanning post-secondary access, higher education, workforce development, and talent attraction, all working towards a common goal. 

Notably, new and revitalized leadership across organizations and institutions in the Philadelphia region seem poised for collective action. We hope that our latest research provides a solid roadmap for regional leaders to build, retain, and attract the workforce of the future. 

Campus Philly is ready for this new challenge — will you join us? 

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Dr. Jennifer Johnson Kebea is president of Campus Philly, a nonprofit committed to fueling inclusive economic growth by empowering diverse college students and recent graduates to explore, live, and work...