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City keeping more college grads

Baltimore has no difficulty attracting students to its top-notch universities — keeping them here has always been the challenge.

Kristen McGuire, executive director of Baltimore Collegetown Network: ‘There’s still work to be done, but we’re going in the right direction, and I think this survey is a real indicator for how young people view the city.’

But now, Charm City appears to be gaining popularity among students deciding where to settle after graduation, according to a survey by the Baltimore Collegetown Network.

The percentage of students in Baltimore colleges who said they are very likely to stay in the region has nearly doubled since 2003, when the most common word they used to describe the city was “dangerous.”

Now, in many students’ eyes, Baltimore is “accessible.”

“There’s still work to be done, but we’re going in the right direction, and I think this survey is a real indicator for how young people view the city,” said Kristen McGuire, executive director of Collegetown — a coalition of area schools that works to develop and promote the Baltimore region as a viable destination for young professionals.

About 2,800 students from 16 Baltimore-area school responded to the survey, which Collegetown has collected every three years since 2003. This year, 37.7 percent said they would “definitely” or “likely” stay in Baltimore after graduation, compared to 31.5 percent in 2009 and 2006, and 19 percent in 2003.

Fewer students said they will “definitely” or “likely” leave the area — 32 percent this year compared to 44 percent in 2003.

Though there’s not one explanation for the shift, McGuire said the results indicate Baltimore is positioning itself as a vibrant, urban locale and has made strides toward eliminating its reputation as a crime-riddled city.

The improved numbers reflect Maryland’s relatively strong job market, said Daraius Irani, director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University.

“We have become a place where there’s some great opportunities if you’re young and in the [information technology] sector or procurement,” Irani said, referencing the National Security Administration and the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process, which moved about 22,000 jobs to Aberdeen Proving Grounds and Fort George G. Meade.

There’s also support positions there for people with writing skills or other liberal arts training, he added.

McGuire said to ensure Charm City keeps rising in the ranks, Baltimoreans need to concentrate on the whole picture, not just jobs.

“We want to bring these students to the city; that’s good for everybody,” McGuire said. “The job market is part of the equation, but the job market here is good. So the next thing is quality of life. That’s how we’re going to continue to grow our city.”

When the survey asked what Baltimore is missing, respondents consistently ranked transportation as their No. 1 complaint. This year, 36 percent asked for better transportation, while 11 percent said they’d want less crime.

McGuire said that question provides insights about specific changes would further enhance Baltimore’s appeal.

“Students really want more ways to get around,” McGuire said. “There have been improvements, but they are mentioning everything from an underground metro to more bus routes to bike lanes. So I think when we’re looking at how to retain students, it has to be a comprehensive solution.”

For Rory Averett, a Pennsylvania native who graduated from Goucher College in May, the downtown atmosphere was the primary factor in his decision to stay in the Baltimore region.

“Just from going to school here, I really like the area a lot,” he said. “There’s always a lot going on, and it’s just a fun place to be, especially by the Inner Harbor.”

A few days ago, Averett was offered a position at KForce, a staffing company in Linthicum, but he said he made up his mind well before receiving the good news. Averett said he plans to move to a neighborhood mostly populated with other young professionals, where there’s an active nightlife and community feel.

In gauging a city’s appeal, the perception of safety is often just as important as the actual amount of crime, several people said. When “The Wire” premiered in 2002, putting Baltimore on the crime-drama map, it also delivered a blow to the city’s image.

“I think it’s good that ‘The Wire’ has now gone out of the collective conscious of people and been replaced by something else,” Irani said. “Any big city is going to have that problem of crime, but having a city that is portrayed in a crime drama doesn’t help.”

McGuire said the show “absolutely” had an effect on perceptions of Baltimore.

“People mention ‘The Wire’ by name,” she said, adding that officials get many questions about it from Europe, where the show recently went to DVD. “It’s still out there and can’t go away fast enough. And it definitely has an impact, and parents know about it.”

Averett said his choice wasn’t affected by those details, though. Public transit and crime are facts of life in a city, he said, so he’ll take it in stride.

“When you’re going to live in a city, you have to know that parking will be a pain, and that there will be crime, and you just accept it. It’s just like any other city,” he said. “It wouldn’t really affect my decision to live there. You just have to be aware of it.”

Because Collegetown only works with Baltimore-area schools, the results don’t necessarily indicate a perceptual shift among all state students. Several major institutions aren’t represented in the survey, including the University of Maryland, College Park.

Like the majority of others, Kevin Smith, who graduated in 2010 from UMCP, said job prospects and proximity to family were the most important factors.

But Smith, 25, decided to return to his Boston hometown to take a job with an engineering firm.

“Staying in D.C. or Baltimore was certainly tempting, just because there were job connections available and that’s where the majority of my friends were going to be,” he said. “But ultimately, all of my family lives right in or around Boston, and I still had a lot of friends [there]. I just thought if I could get a job [in Boston], I would go home.”

Smith has similar attitudes about transit and crime, and said “The Wire” didn’t affect his perception of Baltimore whatsoever.

“To be honest, he said, “it was just the job and that this is where my family is.”