What does college graduate retention look like in the Philadelphia region?

For one, there’s a lot of competition in the form of tech job opportunities in other cities

By: - June 10, 2023 6:30 am

DREXEL’S GLASSY BOSSONE RESEARCH CENTER (Drexel University photo/Technical.ly Philly).

By Sarah Huffman

College graduation season is here. How many of Philadelphia’s soon-to-be grads will stay in the region after tossing their mortarboards?

Brain drain is an issue that has long puzzled ecosystem builders who want to maintain highly educated professionals after they graduate from area schools. Yet as Technical.ly declared in 2019, Philly “slayed its brain-drain beast” following years of civic stakeholder engagement. Even if that’s still true, retaining the best and brightest remains a task worth pursuing, those same stakeholders would say.

Technical.ly reached out to the University of PennsylvaniaTemple UniversityDrexel UniversitySaint Joseph’s UniversityLa Salle University and the Community College of Philadelphia to learn roughly how many computer science students are graduating in Philadelphia this spring. We didn’t receive numbers from the last two, but here are the counts from the other universities, as of March or April:

  • Penn was expecting 215 graduating undergraduate students, 299 graduating master’s degree students and 15 graduating Ph.Ds.
  • Drexel was expecting 355 undergraduate students and 245 graduate students.
  • Temple was expecting 100 undergraduate students and six master’s degree students.
  • Saint Joe’s is expecting 19 undergraduate students and six graduate students, with the disclaimer that this count is pending final grades.

That alone is at least 1,200 comp sci grads emerging from local schools this May and June. But what do all these numbers mean for technology talent in Philadelphia?

To better understand what college student retention looks like for soon-to-be-tech pros in Philadelphia, consider the Drexel case study. But first, let’s zoom out to the city as a whole.

Retention in the region

Jen Kebea is the president of Campus Philly, the nonprofit focused on recruitment, engagement and retention of college talent in the Greater Philadelphia area. The organization works with universities to highlight the region as for students, and continues to engage with them after graduation as alumni.

When Campus Philly was founded in the early 2000s, Philadelphia was only retaining about 25% of college students in the region, Kebea told Technical.ly. The nonprofit completed a retention data study in 2019 that found the region was retaining 54% of its college students. She attributes the increase to Philly stakeholders acknowledging that the region needs to keep its young talent in order to continue growing, and then working together to solve the problem.

Within the pool of STEM graduates, Kebea said depending on the specific field, some are highly retained, such as biology and other life sciences-related subjects. Some, not so much: Based on the 2019 report, computer science and information technology majors were less likely to stay in the region after college.

Gen Z, the current generation in college and the youngest cohort in the workforce, is a smaller population than older generations. Because there are fewer people, Kebea noted, the focus on attraction and retention is even more important to meet workforce needs in the region.

Campus Philly is currently finalizing an updated retention report that will be released in June. The preliminary information from this report showed a persistent trend with computer science and related fields less likely to be retained, per the president. Why? One factor could be that there’s a lot of competition in the form of tech job opportunities in other cities.

The more recent report also showed a high number of international students coming to the region to study computer science, Kebea said. However, the region doesn’t retain a lot of these students after they graduate.

“If we did a better job, and we were able to get those folks into employment and then further along the pathway to staying employed in Philadelphia, that could be a piece of the pie in terms of closing our gap around workers in Philadelphia,” Kebea said.

International student retention

Anca Scarlat and Vivek Khimani are both computer science majors graduating from Drexel this month. Both are international students; Scarlat is from Romania and Khimani is from India.

They also both had jobs already lined up before graduation: Scarlat accepted a full-time position as a software engineer at Viasat in San Diego, while Khimani is going to be a software engineer at San Francisco-based security startup Semgrep, where he previously interned and has worked part time for the past few months.

Scarlat said most Drexel students in their major have two options post-grad: They accept a return offer from a previous co-op or internship, or they accept an offer from a company they haven’t worked with. For his part, Khimani said he completed a co-op with Bala Cynwyd’s Susquehanna International Group (SIG) and enjoyed his experience, but ultimately saw himself moving to California. He knew he wanted to work for an early-stage startup and thought Silicon Valley would be the best place to achieve that goal.

Scarlat said she also interned with SIG and other Philly-area companies, and learned a lot from those experiences, but she always knew she wanted to work in California. She thinks it would be the best place to start her own company some day.

“I think the Philly area is definitely great and it taught me a lot, and the network that we created here with the young professionals is amazing, but I always wanted to go to a warmer environment,” she told Technical.ly. “And I think California is definitely the place for me. I am very excited. I’m not nervous about creating a community there. I mean, we’ve both done it before when moving to the States for college. So we’re used to being in a new environment, making new friends and connections.”

International students may come to Philadelphia because of the variety in higher learning institutions, from community college to the Ivy League in the region. Kebea said a lower cost of living compared to other US cities may also be a factor.

Despite Scarlat and Khimani’s impending departures, Campus Philly’s report also showed that 40% of Drexel’s international students start working in the Philadelphia region after they graduate. Kebea thinks Drexel’s Cooperative Education program probably is why, because students are able to make professional connections before they graduate.

Part of the strategy for retaining students is making sure they are engaged in the region through jobs and opportunities with local companies.

“Campus Philly is very committed to working with employers who are interested in growing their emerging talent pool in Philadelphia, to help connect those organizations to top talent in these sectors and beyond,” Kebea said.

Professional opportunities can help with retention

Yi Deng, dean of Drexel’s College of Computing and Informatics (CCI), said the university doesn’t seek to tell students where to go after graduation, but it does care about retaining students so the region can see growth.

Drexel does this through a few programs. CCI participates in a Corporate Partners Program, through which industry partners can engage with students through class visits, networking events and participating in industry panels, for example. The aforementioned co-op program also connects students to six-month-long employment opportunities with companies in the Philadelphia region before they graduate. And, as noted by Scarlat and Khimani, when seeking employment, students tend to be interested in industries and companies that they’re already familiar with, Deng said.

“By connecting students with co-op opportunities, with career networking, with different companies through different venues, [corporate partners] would create a better understanding amongst our student body about their respective company’s value proposition to our students,” he told Technical.ly.

According to Ian Sladen, Drexel’s VP for cooperative education and career development, about 46% of graduates receive a job offer from their co-op employer upon graduation. That includes big names including Comcast, Lockheed Martin, Cigna, FS Investments, Urban Outfitters, Microsoft and Gopuff.

Drexel wants to prioritize creating opportunities for its students, Deng said, and engaging in professional partnerships naturally gives students professional experiences while positioning the Philadelphia region as a place with opportunity.

“As more students understand why this area’s exciting, how they can view their career, what kind of impact they can make, that will certainly enhance their interest in studying in our areas, which in turn helps retention,” he said.

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. She wrote this story for Technical.ly Philly, where it first appeared

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