As College Graduates Cluster, Some Cities Are Left Behind
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DAYTON, Ohio >> As cities like this one try to reinvent themselves after losing large swaths of their manufacturing sectors, they are discovering that one of the most critical ingredients for a successful transformation - college graduates - is in perilously short supply.
Just 24 percent of the adult residents of metropolitan Dayton have four-year degrees, well below the average of 32 percent for U.S. metro areas, and about half the rate of Washington, the country's most educated metro area, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. Like many Rust Belt cities, Dayton is a captive of its rich manufacturing past, when well-paying jobs were plentiful and landing one without a college degree was easy.
Educational attainment lagged as a result, even as it became more critical to success in the national economy.
"We were so wealthy for so long that we got complacent," said Jane L. Dockery, associate director of the Center for Urban and Public Affairs at Wright State University here. "We saw the writing on the wall, but we didn't act."
Dayton sits on one side of a growing divide among U.S. cities, in which a small number of metro areas vacuum up a large number of college graduates and the rest struggle to keep those they have.
The winners are metro areas like Raleigh, N.C., San Francisco and Stamford, Conn., where more than 40 percent of the population has a college degree. The Raleigh area has a booming technology sector and several major research universities; San Francisco has been a magnet for college graduates for decades; and metropolitan Stamford draws highly educated workers from white-collar professions in New York like finance.
Metro areas like Bakersfield, Calif., Lakeland, Fla., and Youngstown, Ohio, where less than a fifth of the population has a college degree, are being left behind. The divide shows signs of widening as college graduates gravitate to places with many other college graduates and the atmosphere that creates.
"This is one of the most important developments in the recent economic history of this country," said Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who recently published a book on the topic, "The New Geography of Jobs."
The recession amplified the trend. Metro areas where more than 1 in 3 adults were college-educated had an average unemployment rate of 7.5 percent earlier this year, compared with 10.5 percent for cities where less than 1 in 6 adults had a college degree, according to Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard and the author of "Triumph of the City."
Historically, most U.S. cities have had relatively similar shares of college graduates, in part because fewer people went to college. In 1970, the difference between the most-educated and least-educated cities, in terms of the portion of residents with four-year degrees, was 16 percentage points, and nearly all metro areas were within 5 points of the average. Today the spread is double that, and only half of all metro areas are within 5 points of the average, the Brookings research shows.
"There's a relentless cycle in which knowledge breeds knowledge, but the flip side is that many places are left out," said Alan Berube, a senior fellow at Brookings who conducted the analysis using census data from the American Community Survey.
Dayton lost about 1 percent of its college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds between 2000 and 2009, at a time when that group grew by 13 percent nationally, said Joe Cortright, senior policy adviser for CEOs for Cities, an economic development group. In Columbus, Ohio, about 70 miles away, the same group grew by 25 percent.
In a pattern that is part education, part family background, college graduates tend to have longer life expectancies, higher household incomes, lower divorce rates and fewer single-parent families than those with less education, and cities where they cluster tend to exhibit those patterns more strongly. …