General Education

Top 10 Economically Vibrant College Towns

Top 10 Economically Vibrant College Towns
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Noodle Staff February 8, 2019

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With the rise of a knowledge economy, college towns, Richard Florida explains at Atlantic Cities, have become economic hotbeds that not only weathered the recession but often possess lower unemployment rates than the rest of the country. Florida, along with colleagues at the Martin Prosperity Institute, built an index for measuring the economic vibrancy of college towns. The study defines college towns as "metropolitan areas with high percentages of students and faculty in their populations." This includes cities like Boston, Austin, and New York, any city in the top quartile of student share per population and higher education faculty share of employment.

Six key variables were used to build the index: "per capita income, high-tech industry concentration, the rate of innovation (measured as patents per capita), human capital (the percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher), percent of the workforce in the creative class, and the affordability of housing."

The top ten:

  1. Boulder, CO

  2. Ann Arbor, MI

  3. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA

  4. Raleigh-Cary, NC

  5. Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA

  6. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA

  7. Austin-Round Rock, TX

  8. Trenton-Ewing, NJ

  9. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN, WI

  10. D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria, VA


Boulder was also ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek as the "best town for startups." Ann Arbor, coming in at second on this list, Florida notes, is only 50 miles away from the depressed and struggling Detroit - a rustbelt city that failed to transition its economy. The San Francisco Bay Area and Massachussets have long been centers of knowledge and tech based industries, but their ability to weather the recent downturn, which Florida in part attributes to the presence of universities, further emphasizes the strengths of the American economy in the coming years: technology and higher education.

Florida thinks these towns and cities remain vibrant because of not only the physical universities themselves, but high concentrations of state funding and a job market based around "meds and eds." In many ways, the connection between universities and local economic success goes much deeper. Universities like Stanford and MIT grew in conjunction with the rise of technology based research and manufacturing in Silicon Valley and Massachussets' tech corridor along Route 128 over the past 50 years. This established an economic bedrock and cultural relationship between universities, governments, and technology companies built to succeed during a decline in industrial manufacturing and an increasing emphasis on "knowledge" based industries.

High-school students might want to think about pinpointing these regions as they look for colleges, but this seems paramount for future graduate students interested in careers centered in these fields. Oftentimes a graduate school has strong regional name recognition but more limited national prestige. Graduate studies also provide more opportunities for networkng and employment while at school - proximity to thriving economic centers can increase exposure to businesses and industries that have not contracted during the financial downturn. Even in a digitally connected world, geography and urban centers still play can play a roll as important variables.

How much should proximity to these centers of knowledge and technology based industries be weighted in college and graduate decisions?

Image source, via Atlantic Cities.


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