College graduates head to cities with 'cultural cool'

Their movements could foreshadow future economic powerhouses

College graduates are increasingly moving to metropolitan areas after graduation, and many are taking their skills beyond popular locations such as New York and San Francisco, according to a new report from City Observatory.

Researchers examined data from the federal American Community Survey and looked at where college graduates aged 25 to 34 lived. The number of young adults living within a three-mile radius of a city center has increased 37% in 14 years.

All of the 51 largest metropolitan areas, with the exception of Detroit, saw their college grad population increase since 2000. The boom was caused both by students graduating from nearby colleges, but also by graduates migrating to cities at unprecedented rates.

Individuals in this demographic move frequently; about one million of them change states each year. They tend not to settle down until their mid-30s, and where they end up could foreshadow future booming cities.

"The most successful economic development policy is to attract and retain smart people and then get out of their way," says Edward Glaeser, a Harvard University economist.

The cities that saw the greatest increase in college graduates are:

1. Houston, 50%
2. Nashville, 48%
3. Denver, 47%
4. Austin, 44%
5. Portland, 37%

'Growth that feeds on itself'

For every college graduate who enters an innovation industry in a city, five more jobs—such as for waiters and architects—are created, says Enrico Moretti, an economist at University of California, Berkeley.

"The more young workers you have, the more companies are interested in locating their operations in that area and the more young people are going to move there," he says.

What makes a city attractive?

Denver's young-and-educated population increased by more than twice what New York's did; 7.5% of its overall population falls into the category, compared with the nation's average of 5.2%. The reason the city draws so many young adults, experts say, is because it has jobs in tech and outdoor recreation—but also "cultural cool" factors such as microbreweries, marijuana, and same-sex marriage.

"They want something exciting, culturally fun, involving a lot of diversity — and their fathers’ suburban lifestyle doesn’t seem to be all that thrilling to many of them," says Glaeser.

Not all cities experienced such growth, however. Atlanta, a 1990s favorite of the 25-to-34 demographic, drew in just 2.8% more grads over the last 14 years (Cain Miller, "The Upshot," New York Times, 10/20).


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