Ellie Long is one that got away.

The 20-year-old from Falcon Heights headed south for school — way south, to Emory University in Atlanta — and is eyeing a move to New York or Chicago after graduation.

Every year, thousands more college students leave Minnesota than arrive, a Star Tribune analysis of U.S. census data shows. Boosters and business leaders warn that the losses could have major consequences for the state's workforce in the not-so-distant future.

"This is a clear trend we want to reverse," said Peter Frosch, CEO of regional economic development organization Greater MSP. "It matters to Minnesota colleges and universities today who need and want students in their classrooms. And it really matters to a region and state with one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates."

For a decade, State Demographer Susan Brower has been preaching about the departure of young adults. It often surprises Minnesotans who assume people leaving the state are largely retirees bound for warmer climes or workers seeking lower taxes.

"Migration is being driven by decisions that happen very early on in adult life," Brower said. "Think of the late teens in your life, early 20s. They are moving for college, they are moving because they are in love and they are following someone across the country, they're deciding to go skiing in Colorado."

While Minnesota's higher education institutions do pull many young people from other states, the state overall loses roughly 8,000 more 18-to 24-year-olds each year than it gains, the Star Tribune's census analysis found. And often they don't come back.

"It really adds up over time," said Sean O'Neil, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce's director of economic development and research.

College students make up nearly two-thirds of the state's annual net loss in domestic migration. Drawing people from across the U.S. and internationally is increasingly essential to maintain the state's population and economy as the birth rate declines. Within 20 years, Minnesota is expected to have more residents die each year than are born.

Minnesota saw a net loss of about 156,000 young adults to other states between 2006 and 2021, O'Neil said.

"As we think about ways to stabilize and grow our workforce, that really has to be part of the solution and part of the equation," O'Neil said. "It just is where the numbers are."

Long and her twin sister, Abby, are staying with their parents for the summer and enjoy biking around the Twin Cities. But both said Minnesota feels a little too nostalgic, the cities a little too familiar.

Job recruiters who come to Emory are from the nation's biggest cities or the Atlanta area, said Long, who is studying accounting and political science.

"It makes me feel like, at least when I'm young, there are more opportunities in the bigger cities than back home," she said.

Where are students going?

Minnesota wasn't always losing young people. In the 1990s, the state saw more arrivals than departures.

But the number of high school graduates headed out of state has been increasing for years, with the pandemic-related downtick in 2020 an exception, said Meredith Fergus, director of research at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

They are largely going to neighboring states. North Dakota State University took in the most Minnesotans, followed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, state data shows.

Schools in some of these less-populous bordering states have also leaned on Minnesota graduates to support their enrollment, she said.

Fergus said state data indicates 21% of students enrolled in out-of-state colleges appear to be commuting to class while continuing to live in Minnesota cities, such as Moorhead.

Leaders with Minnesota's public and private college say the state's reputation for having a high-quality K-12 education system has been a double-edged sword. Recruiters from outside the state have long targeted students here, and the Twin Cities hosts one of the country's largest higher education fairs, said Robert McMaster, the University of Minnesota's dean of undergraduate education.

"All of those factors together mean they like to come pick our pockets," he said, especially as much of the country is poised to see a drop in high school graduates.

Students who leave Minnesota tend to be white, don't qualify for free or reduced meals and have higher-than-average ACT scores, according to the data.

The state exports nearly twice as many first-time college students as it brings in. Only seven states had a worse ratio of students moving out than moving in, according to an analysis of 2018 federal education data.

To counteract this, the state is going on the offense. Over the past decade, the U has boosted financial aid, roughly tripled its regional recruiters to eight people, and increased marketing efforts to draw in more students, McMaster said.

Office of Higher Education officials expect more local students will head to college here with new state programs covering public school tuition and fees for students whose families earn $80,000 or less, and for Minnesota residents who are members of tribal nations.

The state's recent Direct Admissions program — which tells high schools students which Minnesota colleges they could get into, what financial aid is available and waives application fees — also encourages people to look at their home state first, Fergus said.

The end goal isn't to tell young people here not to leave, said Minnesota Private College Council President Paul Cerkvenik, who has three children who went to school out of state and have not returned.

"Who's going to say 'shrink your horizons' to a young person?" he said. "But we can say, 'You should come and see all that Minnesota has to offer, and you should know that you're going to get a really top-quality education here.'"

Fergus also said her big concern isn't whether someone leaves for college — it's whether they return.

"They can go to River Falls or Madison, but I want them coming back to Minnesota to work," she said. "Which means we have to keep the jobs here."

Employers aim to win workers back

For Kaitlyne Dittberner, the plan was always to return to Minnesota.

The occupational therapy student, who grew up in Otsego, knew the University of North Dakota had a program in her field. She wanted independence while remaining within driving distance. The price of tuition sealed the deal.

"UND was the most affordable option," said Dittberner, 25, who is still a UND student but is doing fieldwork at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Minnesota. She knows many Minnesotans who went to North Dakota because tuition was lower, then returned to their home state. "I love this state. My family is here. I don't know much else, and there is no other state that really draws me away."

There is a silver lining for the post-college age range. About 3,000 more people between 25 to 39 move to Minnesota each year than depart, census figures show. Roughly 40% of those moving here in that age range were either born here or are married to someone who was. That's the ninth-highest rate in the nation.

The population gain in that bracket does not make up for the loss of younger adults, many of whom find jobs, partners or interests that permanently shift their trajectory away from Minnesota.

However, executives at some Minnesota-based companies said pulling locals back to their home state is a useful tactic.

Essentia Health, which serves Duluth and many rural Minnesota communities, is employing increasingly sophisticated tactics for tracking students they might later recruit as employees, said John Higgins, the vice president of talent management.

"We chase back after those folks that are from the area, who either grew up here or went to school here, and chased that big city dream," he said, noting that three to five years after school is an opportune moment to "tap them on the shoulder" and ask whether they would like to return home.

When Schwan's Co. recruits workers from other states, it looks for people with a Minnesota connection, whether they grew up here or went to college in the state, said Scott Peterson, executive vice president and chief human resources officer.

"We tend to have much more success," he said. "Many native Minnesotans are trying to find a way to get back to Minnesota because they love the quality of life."

The state must do more to pitch its companies and quality of life to others across the nation and to encourage young people here to stick around, he said.

"It's a potential long-term threat to our state," Peterson said of college student losses. "We have so many great companies here. But you've got to have talent if you are going to be successful."

Correction: A previous map graphic with this story should have said Minnesota is one of nine states losing more college students than it's gaining. The graphic and a previous version of this story also misstated the timing of the data. It is from fall 2018.