Brainpower rankings usually identify the usual suspects: college towns like Boston, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay area. And to be sure, these places generally have the highest per capita education levels. However, it’s worthwhile to look at the metro areas that are gaining college graduates most rapidly; this is an indicator of momentum that is likely to carry over into the future.
To determine where college graduates are settling, demographer Wendell Cox analyzed the change in the number of holders of bachelor’s degrees and above between 2007 and 2012 in the 51 metropolitan statistical areas with over a million people (all saw gains). For the most part, the fastest-growing brain hubs are in the South and Intermountain West (which excludes the states on the Pacific Coast). Some of these places are usually not associated with the highest levels of academic achievement, and for the most, they still lag the national average in college graduation rates.
But times are changing, and educated people are increasingly heading to these metro areas, notably in the South, were job growth has been robust and the cost of living is far lower than in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York or Los Angeles. This includes New Orleans, which ties for first place on our list with San Antonio. The New Orleans metro area’s population of college graduates grew by 44,000 from 2007 to 2012, a 20.3% increase, nearly double the national average of 10.9%. (The percentage of college grads in the U.S. stood at 19.4% in 2012, up from 18% in 2007.)
New Orleans’ story, of course, is unique; the jump certainly is partly due to the return of evacuees to the city after Katrina, and some scoff that the region is destined to return to its historical pattern of exporting its educated young. But right now the American Community Survey data seems to indicate otherwise, as does the decision in recent years by numerous technology, videogame and media businesses to establish operations in the metro area, including General Electric, Paris-based Gameloft and the satellite communications company Globalstar, which in 2010 moved its headquarters from Silicon Valley to Covington, a prosperous suburb of the Crescent City.
What is happening in New Orleans, where I have worked as a consultant, is unique, but it also follows a broader pattern that we see in other areas. Unable to afford to settle long-term in traditional “brain centers,” educated people are increasingly looking for places that have strong economies but also many of the cultural and natural amenities associated with the traditional meccas for the educated. With housing prices that are half to a third of Silicon Valley or San Francisco, New Orleans offered educated workers, particularly younger ones, many of the things they look for, but at an affordable cost.
“For $65,000 a year in San Francisco you get a shared apartment and no car,” says long-time New Orleans tech entrepreneur Chris Reed. ”Here, you get great restaurants and clubs, and you get to have a car and your own nice apartment. It’s a no-brainer.”
Other cities with some of the same characteristics are also winning in the race to bring in more educated workers. Nowhere is this more true than in Texas, which is home to four of the top 12 metro areas on our list. Tops is co-first place San Antonio, which had a net gain of 76,000 college-educated people since 2007, or 20.3%.
Like New Orleans, the San Antonio area has traditionally lagged behind in attracting educated people; nearly one resident in six does not have a high school diploma. But the old Texas town also has many amenities that appeal to educated workers, notably great food and a good nightlife scene. In addition, it boasts one of the fastest-growing regional economies in the country, with expanding tech and energy businesses, something that may have a particular appeal in this still weak recovery.
“When the buzz starts … and hipsters start to get wise to the neighborhood assets that are here, once the hipsters get wind of it – you’ll have to beat them away with a stick,” says economic geographer Jim Russell.
Austin places third, which should come as no surprise — the area is home to the main campus of the University of Texas, boasts a thriving music scene and a strong technology infrastructure. Nor should the rapid growth of educated residents in sixth-ranked Houston, up 16% since 2007, which also enjoys low costs, an increasingly attractive cultural scene and one of the fastest growing hubs of dense urban living in the country. Dallas, also a fast-growing area, lands in 12th place on our list, boosting its college graduate population by 13%, or 175,000.
One of the more surprising metro areas in our top 10 is fifth place Louisville, Ky.-Ind. The home of Humana, it has a thriving health care sector, and also is strong in the food industry and logistics. It has seen a 16.2% increase in the number of educated residents.
Strong growth has also occurred in the Intermountain West, led by Denver (seventh) and Salt Lake City (eighth). Both areas have been beneficiaries of the migration of people and companies from California. This may also explain the growth of 11th place Phoenix, an area that has made remarkable strides since the disastrous days of the housing bust and is once again attracting migrants in larger numbers than any large metro area outside Texas.
So if these areas are leading the race to capture “talent,” who is lagging behind? Not surprising at the bottom of the list are a series of Rust Belt cities with relatively weak economies, led by last place Detroit, where the number of college-educated residents rose 4.1%. Its followed by Providence, Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Boston, long styled as the “Athens” of America, ranks 47th on our list. Over the past five years Boston has gained some 98,000 college educated people, an increase of 7.2%, well below the national average. Beantown, of course, can always claim it has the highest “quality” brains but even in terms of percentage gains of people with graduate degrees it ranks only 41st .
The data show the universe of educated people is not becoming more “spiky” as some suggest, but is spreading out. This is true not only in terms of percentage growth, but in absolute numbers. Since 2007, for example, the Houston and Dallas metro areas have added more BAs than San Francisco-Oakland, and nearly twice as many as Boston. As a result, these and other such cities are gaining a critical mass in brainpower not widely recognized in the Eastern-dominated media.
At very least, we can say that the conventional wisdom favoring the traditional “brain” cities seems flawed. There will always be areas with more educated people per capita than others, if for no other reason than historical inertia and lack of migration, particularly among the less educated. But the clear pattern now is for brainpower, like population and jobs, to continue dispersing, largely to the South, the Southeast and the Intermountain West, with ramifications that will be felt in the economy in the decades ahead.
|Educational Attainment: BAs & Higher|
|Major Metropolitan Area||2007||2012||Change||Change %||Rank|
|Dallas-Fort Worth, TX||1,155,069||1,330,312||175,243||15.2%||12|
|Kansas City, MO-KS||410,109||460,391||50,282||12.3%||32|
|Las Vegas, NV||257,886||293,001||35,115||13.6%||23|
|Los Angeles, CA||2,458,215||2,720,654||262,439||10.7%||36|
|Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI||774,669||881,581||106,912||13.8%||21|
|New Orleans. LA||172,965||216,970||44,005||25.4%||1|
|New York, NY-NJ-PA||4,433,180||4,836,321||403,141||9.1%||43|
|Oklahoma City, OK||210,720||237,329||26,609||12.6%||28|
|Riverside-San Bernardino, CA||469,381||519,680||50,299||10.7%||36|
|Salt Lake City, UT||193,167||229,140||35,973||18.6%||8|
|San Antonio, TX||300,114||376,445||76,331||25.4%||1|
|San Diego, CA||631,996||722,819||90,823||14.4%||18|
|San Francisco-Oakland, CA||1,251,139||1,414,393||163,254||13.0%||25|
|San Jose, CA||527,167||592,703||65,536||12.4%||31|
|St. Louis,, MO-IL||521,047||586,547||65,500||12.6%||28|
|Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL||496,826||544,121||47,295||9.5%||41|
|Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC||284,924||317,741||32,817||11.5%||34|