Where College Grads Congregate

Students may wonder whether a college degree is worth the price, but communities teeming with college graduates are leading America's economic hit parade.New data from the Brookings Institution indicates college graduates are migrating to cities, especially cities with already high levels of educational attainment. Those cities are typified by major universities, service industries, modern manufacturers — and lower unemployment.

Washington, D.C. and its surrounding suburbs lead the largest 100 American metropolitan areas in education attainment, with 46.8 percent of its residents possessing at least a 4-year college degree.

The next nine areas, in order, are San Jose-Santa Clara (45.3%), Bridgeport-Stamford (44%), San Francisco (43.4%), Madison (43.3%), Boston-Cambridge (43%), Raleigh-Durham (41%), Austin (39.4%), Denver (38.2%) and Minneapolis (37.9%).

Seattle-Tacoma ranks 11th, with 37 percent of its population holding college degrees. Portland is tied for 22nd, along with Omaha and Rochester, at 33 percent. Boise is 58th with a college degree attainment level of 28.3 percent. (Use the link below to find out how your city ranks.)

The more dramatic dimension of the data is the growing disparity in education attainment among major metropolitan areas. The Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program compared attainment levels in 1970 with 2010, the latest available data, which shows that the cities with the highest number of college graduates are increasing their ranks at the fastest rate.

For example, the Boston area's growth in education attainment went up nearly 29 percent in the 40-year period. That contrasts to a growth rate of just 6 percent for Bakersfield, which came in 100th on the rankings. Its education attainment level in 1970 was 8.9 percent and now is only 15 percent.

The areas with the fastest growing concentration of college graduates, in addition to Boston, are San Francisco, Washington, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta and Denver. Their gains were three times as large as the lagging education-attainment areas such as Modesto, Stockton, Lakeland, Florida, Youngstown, Ohio, El Paso and Las Vegas.

Brookings, in announcing its data, drew the contrast between Dayton, Ohio and Chicago, both basic manufacturing centers in the Midwest with similar numbers of college graduates in 1970 (around 11%). Today Dayton ranks 85th, with an attainment level of 24 percent of its adults. Chicago, with its more diversified and higher-value economy, now ranks 18th with 34 percent of its adults possessing a college degree.

Perhaps more telling is the contrast between Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, home of Ohio State University. Columbus posted an education attainment level in 1970 of 12.3 percent. It now ranks 26th among all major metropolitan areas at 32.8 percent.

While the number of college graduates may not be the only indicator of economic prosperity, it does track with the growth of new-age industry clusters in metropolitan areas, whether it is software developers inside the D.C. Beltway or in Redmond, outside of Seattle. It also tracks with the decline of basic manufacturing in America and the inability of many communities to adapt to new economic demands.

Meanwhile, college graduates themselves are clustering in prime metropolitan areas that offer "thick" job opportunities, combined with more amenities such as cultural events, fine restaurants and sports facilities. Maybe most telling is that adults with bachelor's degrees account for three-quarters of the per capita income variation among metropolitan areas. They are both a reflection of economic success and a reason for that success

A couple of the fairly obvious conclusions that can be drawn from the Brookings data are that promoting college education and retaining college graduates is good for the local economy. By extension, that means viewing colleges and universities as important community economic assets, even as questions grow about the cost of college and its relative value to individual students

College education, like vocational skill training, needs to match economic demands, which may mean providing incentives to recruit more students into high-demand fields such as computer engineering and software development. Research produced in university labs also is an economic driver that generates new businesses and new technologies that can enliven existing industries.

Or, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told Cornell University graduates this year, "So if you haven't found a job yet, you're better off coming to the city than sitting on your parents' couch." That advice might just as well apply to cities that need to make sure their local colleges and universities are plugged into the economic futures of the community.