EVANSVILLE, Indiana – Becca Lax is not like many young adults in their mid-20s who grew up in Evansville.
The 25-year-old graduate of Reitz High School and Purdue University lives and works in Austin, Texas, more than 900 miles from southwest Indiana.
While some of her friends also live far away from Evansville, none of them have moved that far to Lax.
“I don’t really consider myself one of my few friends as we’ve mostly scattered a bit, but I’m the one who’s gone the farthest while the others are just a few hours from Evansville,” she said. “However, I feel like a lot of my class has stayed close to Evansville.”
A new study of migration patterns by the United States Census Bureau and Harvard University found that 71 percent of young adults in Southwest Indiana have not moved. According to census data, those who relocated for their jobs, on average, went to an area about 120 miles from Evansville.
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It’s not just Southwest Indiana where adults in their 20s live close to home. The study found that nearly six in 10 young adults in the US live within 10 miles of where they grew up, and eight in 10 live within 100 miles.
“Unless you move away or try something new when you’re younger, maybe you never will,” Lax said.
With an aviation degree and an interest in becoming an airline pilot, Lax saw the need to go where the work was. After a brief stay at home in Evansville, she relocated to Austin in 2020 to work for the pilot support team at a mobile flight planning app company.
“I’m eventually planning to work for an airline, so the likelihood of returning to Evansville is pretty slim,” she said.
Some like to stay
McKenna and Jadrien Higginson are excited to remain in the Evansville area. The couple recently bought a house in neighboring Newburgh, where they both grew up. They are happy with their work.
“We just loved Newburgh,” said McKenna Higginson. “I remember when people at school said they couldn’t wait to go. I always thought it wasn’t that bad.”
McKenna, 24, graduated from the University of Evansville and works as a trauma nurse at St. Vincent Medical Center. Jadrien, 22, loves his job as Assistant Manager of Food Service at Victoria National Golf Club.
“We’ve both had times where we’ve thought about living somewhere else,” McKenna Higginson said. “We both love the mountains.”
However, the Evansville-Newburgh area has everything they want in a place to live, she said
“Both our families are here,” she said. “I just love the idea of knowing the city, knowing people. It feels comfortable.”
Kennedy Loveless also stayed.
With degrees in criminal justice and psychology from Ball State University, she has been able to find work in her field near where she lives. Loveless, 24, works for Warrick County’s drug court program.
“Initially, I had no intention of staying in Evansville,” she said. “I wanted to get out and see the world while I could.”
Friends went to bigger cities, but Loveless said she realized she wanted to stay in Evansville, close to her young nieces and family.
“I bought a house here last year. This is really where I want to be. Moving will always be an option for me, but I’m perfectly happy,” Loveless said.
The top destinations for dropouts
The Census Bureau study found that Indianapolis, Louisville, Bloomington, and Chicago are the top travel destinations for young adults who choose to leave Evansville’s orbit for work.
When Riley Herrin, 24, graduated from Reitz High School in 2016, she planned to go to college at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, to pursue a teaching degree. Then she would return to Evansville.
“I thought I would never go,” she said.
After teaching students in Pendleton, Indiana, in the Indianapolis area, Herrin applied to teach at a school district closer to Evansville. But when she was offered a full-time teaching position in Pendleton, it wasn’t the better pay that influenced her decision to move there.
“I fell in love with Pendleton and realized how much more there was in the Indianapolis area,” she said.
Herrin said she believes attending college from home is the biggest factor in determining the likelihood of moving away.
“For the people I went to school with, the big turning point is college and where they went,” she said. “I would say it’s about 50/50. If they went to (Southern Indiana University), they’re still in Evansville. They never left.”
“People want to feel safe”
Corey Herrin, director of Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation’s RAMP (Real-World Application; Maximizing Potential) program, helps at-risk high school students work in a manufacturing environment where they learn employability and technical skills while gaining academic credits for graduation work . The program helps them find the education and skills they need to be successful in the workplace as young adults.
Herrin said he understands why many young people could stay close to home.
“That does not surprise me. I think a lot of people want to feel safe and secure. Staying close to home is a big part of that and having that network of family and friends,” he said.
As the father of Riley Herrin, Corey Herrin said he also understands why young adults would move away. His other daughter, Reaghan Herrin, also now resides in the Indianapolis area.
“Our job as parents is to raise our children to achieve their dreams,” he said. “We wanted them to be able to do what they wanted to do. I don’t think it’s my job as a parent to put that pressure on her (to stay).”
Longtime economic development expert Greg Wathen said the study’s findings are consistent with what he’s seen in recent years, as finding or staying in areas with a lower cost of living has become more of a consideration.
In April, Wathen resigned as president of the Evansville Regional Economic Development Partnership, where he led efforts to attract and retain jobs in Southwest Indiana.
“People used to go where there was a job, but now there’s a younger generation that says, ‘I want to go somewhere based on the quality of the place,'” he said.
However, the reassurance of being close to a family support network, or many navigating the workplace in the wake of the COVID pandemic and a changing economy, can also be strong, Wathen said. The ability to work remotely and do many jobs over the internet could also be a factor.