Brain Drain:
Are Developing Countries Chasing Pavements?

            Yehwon Jang received a Top 50 Award on her senior year at IPFW.

The traditional image, particularly in the U.S., of the uneducated migrant who is seeking to take the jobs of hard-working nationals as construction workers and dishwashers is not completely inaccurate; however, it is too often generalized to all migrants. 

But, when those on "developing" countries worry about migration they are increasingly concerned about people leaving: brain drain. Brain drain is when the best and brightest members of a country migrate to, more often than not, the developed world. 

Yehwon Jang moved her life 10,64 kilometers (or 6.633 miles) west, to the "developed" world: the United States of America - twice. Born and raised in South Korea, Jang is currently a graduate student at IPFW pursuing her MBA, where she also acquired her bachelor's degrees in business and economics. 

Jang first came to the U.S. in 2006 to live in Milwaukee. Her father had wanted to study abroad since a young age, and he finally achieved his goal when the company he worked for in South Korea suggested he come to the U.S. for his MBA. He came with his wife and children, one of them being a 13-year-old Yehwon Jang. 

Her father always wanted his children to study abroad as well, because he felt that in a different society they would learn more than they would by just staying in South Korea.

"When my parents first told me that we would move to America and live there for two years, because he was studying, I was really afraid, I didn't even want to come here," Jang said, "because I liked my friends in Korea, my family in Korea, all of my surroundings that were already there for me. I really liked it, and I didn't want to break it."

When she came to the U.S., 13-year-old Jang got to experience middle school in the American system. Surprisingly, she liked it.

The assistant director for international programs at IPFW, Jamie Sandy, said this kind of process, of adapting and settling, is completely normal and part of studying abroad. Upon returning from living abroad, not only is it normal to feel out of place, but also to feel proximity to the former host country and some distance from home.

"I'm not the same person that I was, and trying to fit back into your life can be really difficult," Sandy said. "But, when you study abroad you also fall in love with the culture, you make new friends - especially if you are there for four years. You settle your roots a little bit, and it is kind of like 'OK, I would rally like to stay here, because It's my home now.'"

"Brain drain" refers to the draining of brain power in a specific territory, and it usually happens in developing countries where that human capital is more sparse.

Developed countries have attempted to limit migrant's freedom to work in competition with nationals, but regulations are often laxer when related to college graduate students. For instance, countries like Australia and Canada have put into place immigration rules that privilege students who have graduated from college.

Lucas Punchirolli and wife, Liana Buss, on their wedding day in Brazil.

Lucas Punchirolli, a 26-year-old Brazilian who majored in computer science, recently emigrated to Canada on one of the government-supported programs intended to attract brain power into the country. 

The program guidelines require higher education, stipulated an age limit, and indicated an inclination over time to more easily accept married couples. The program also required that they took introductory-level classes of French prior to going, said Punchirolli.

Currently, Punchirolli lives with his wife in Montreal, Quebec, where he is taking classes in a specializing course that will better qualify him for his desired area of work in information technology. His wife is working with a local firm. Both are conducting their lives as locals for as long as their contribution to the workforce supports their visa status.

In the United States, students who graduate from a four-year program in an American university with a student visa can stay in the U.S. for up to one year after graduation for Optional Practical Training. OPT is an extension of a student visa that allows international students to get work experience related to their major in the U.S., but only for 365 days.

Maureen Linvill, the assistant director for international student services at IPFW, works directly with students applying for OPT in the university. Linvill said most students apply for OPT wether they use it or not. Many of the students that go through the process are simultaneously looking for opportunities back in their home countries, and often decide after weighing available options.

Even so, she estimates that roughly 40 percent of students aim to stay in the United states, while the other sixty percent wish to return to their families and homes.

“I think that he U.S. makes it difficult for students to stay," Linvill said. "Because not only are they selective, but the administration put other taxing steps in order to stay. A student can come and study and stay for a year of OPT, and after that he may not have any additional options if the company doesn’t want to put forth any extra money."

What is brain drain?
Why does it happen?
Where does it happen?


Dr. James Toole is an associate professor of Political Science at IPFW, researching and teaching international politics. As he sees it, although study abroad may influence individual decisions regarding whether to stay or go, brain drain is part of a much larger context.

"A lot of the people who end up leaving their countries  permanently or for a long  period of time sort  of begin by being educated abroad," Toole said. "I think, many of them go abroad to  university, and get a degree in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and any number of wealthier countries. And once there, there are job opportunities that would pay them a lot more, usually, than they get paid if they return to their home countries."

Toole said there is, in fact a compelling temptation to stay and not return to the home country. Students that go abroad to get these prestigious degrees from institutions of higher education in developed countries face a difficult choice: to reap the benefits of a wealthy country, or return home to less opportunities.

People in wealthy countries do participate as well, moving to other countries to work or take up educational opportunities. However, Toole said, in poor countries the number of well-educated people leaving is disproportionate, which creates an imbalance. In wealthy countries, the small number of well-educated people leaving is offset by the number of well-educated people coming in.


He said brain drain is not just about study abroad or one country's particular set of available opportunities, it is an indicator of a much larger economic disparity. Brain drain perpetuates this inequality by deviating resources (human capital) from the areas that need it most, Toole said.

“When we look around the world, what we see now is that economic inequality  is one of the biggest issues worldwide right now," Toole said. "It is a growing phenomenon in general, when we look over the larger historical picture. So, we have wealthy countries becoming wealthier, and poor countries – not really becoming poorer at the moment, there is  at least, there are at least low levels of economic growth in most regions of the world."



In South Korea, Jang said, parents invest every last cent available into their children's education so that they can have "good jobs." 

There, "good jobs" fall into two categories: they are either "iron rice bowl" job openings in the government that usually go unaffected by national economic struggles, or big positions in major conglomerates like Samsung and LG. Jang said members of younger generations all compete for spots on the big companies in an already limited area to work for.

However, the great concern to make education available to young people has created an issue of another kind. There are too many overqualified young graduates to fill out the limited positions available at those major conglomerates or government openings. 

Jang said South Korea can only offer a limited spectrum of options on what to do for a career. That attracted her to the United States, where she saw students have more freedom and face less pressure to find those coveted "good jobs" in major companies and the government, for which they are prepared for in hagwons (extracurricular cram schools in South Korea). Jang said the U.S. offered a different path.

“If I think about what would be the reason, I think the reason is the open mind atmosphere," Jang said. "In Korea there are so many things to worry, so many things to compare – to be compared - and that feels really miserable."

Jang said professors announced test scores in front of the entire class or in the hallway in front of the classroom. Students are ranked first to last and the ranking is made public in a system that pressures students to excel. 

In studying abroad, Sandy said , students have different experiences. It expands horizons as it did for Jang.

"The world has so much to offer," Sandy said, "you can find anything you want in a different country that maybe your home institution doesn't have to offer."

And in experiencing those places, Jamie said, students would likely feel less motivated to return home, where less opportunities are available.


Brain Drain Statistics


Brain drain happens everywhere. 

Developed countries are not immune.

And it could come in many sizes.

"People are clamoring to get out of low income countries and move to higher income countries. And in an age where the internet and jet travel and all sorts of other things makes human movement easier than ever before, I think we are going to see this only increase." - Dr. James Toole

Is this a problem in my community?


Toole said the U.S. does not seem to have a problem with brain drain. It is a popular attraction for well educated people, like STEM graduates coming to work in Silicon Valley, and so it benefits more than it suffers from brain drain.

"In the case of the U.S. in particular, the number of people to leave the U.S. to live abroad is simply minuscule, it is a tiny percentage of people," Toole said. "So, a country like the U.S. simply is not hurt by brain drain. Because, the number of people coming in probably quite impressively outweighs the number of equally well educated or equally skilled people going out. And that is very different from what we see in poor countries, where a lot of educated people and highly skilled people are leaving while very few are coming in."

However, when it comes to a national overview of brain drain, it is obvious that there is a disproportion on the concentration of degree-holders. 

According to Bloomberg's Brain Concentration Index in the U.S., three of the top ten "brain gain" destinations in the U.S. are in Colorado, one of them being Fort Collins. More importantly, the top 10 "brain drain" cities in the U.S. are on the east coast, and half of them are in the Midwest. Most of them are smaller cities as well, which align with the trend of limited employment opportunities.

The issue is so, that legislation is being discussed, and public debate is being ignited in order to discuss how to best combat national brain drain.

Fort Wayne may not be losing too many well educated, skillful people to Belgium or the United Kingdom, but it does run the risk of losing them for jobs in Seattle, Denver and Chicago.


Fort Wayne earned another brain with the graduate student Yehwon Jang, who plans on remaining in America.

She aims to further her studies while preparing to apply for a PhD program, and eventually become a college professor. Jang said she fears not succeeding in getting into a "good school" for the program, still under the pressure she learned in her home country. Even so, "in order to achieve her dreams", Jang aims to do her best and use all her brain power to continue enjoying the fruits of her labor in the U.S.

"[In South Korea] people were really well raised to get a job. I felt it was really... boring, and sad as a student. A job is only one option to live life. But, having that job does not equal one becoming a successful person in his or her life. I didn't agree with that. But here, they can just try what fits them. They can choose this one, and if they failed it it's OK, but f they succeeded then they can follow or ask help for other directions, like pathways. But, in Korea: this or that. Only certain. Two kinds of way. And they usually put the word as 'you succeeded' or 'you failed'. So, that really discourages students to follow up with their dreams or follow up with their motivation." - Yehwon Jang