Sunday, December 5th, 2010

College Degree Density Revisited

You may recall a while back that a blog post by Rob Pitingolo ranking cities and counties by their density of college degrees (and vs. their expected density based on population) deservedly got quite a bit of attention.

I wanted to return to that topic and this time look not just at college degree density, but how density and other metrics related to college degrees have changed in the last decade. I thought it would be interesting to ask what counties in the US increased their college degree density the most in the last decade. Here’s the answer:

On the one hand this isn’t surprising, since you think New York is big and dense already. But then you think that New York has actually been a slow growth city in the last decade. And then you look at the numbers. Frankly, it’s staggering. Manhattan increased its density of people with college degrees by 7,500 people per square mile in the last decade. That’s just the increase in density of just people with college degrees. That’s more than the total population density of most cities in the United States.

We also read a lot about Brooklyn’s (Kings County) transformation – and this metric shows it. But what jumped out at me was the Bronx – wow. Unsurprisingly, other talent hubs like San Francisco, Boston, and DC feature highly on the list. This helps illustrate what’s been going on with these places. I should come as no surprise to see the incredible resurgence of New York, for example, given this type of educational attainment performance.

Now clearly there are caveats. These places benefit from generally high density to begin with, and are geographically small counties. There’s no true apples to apples comparison here. If you are LA or Chicago, both of which occupy gigantic home counties, there’s simply no way to compete on this metric. You’d need to pick a like for like geographic element, which would require some custom analysis. (I did not do city population in this analysis, because city boundaries change so frequently it would entail a lot of work). I suspect that on similarly sized areas, they’d show similar results. By the way, Alexandria, VA is shown on here since cities in Virginia are treated as independent cities, and thus show up as county equivalents in the data.

Let’s take a look at these counties on some other dimensions of the educational attainment number. Here they are ranked by total increase in adults with college degrees.

Again, pretty big numbers for the most part. To put it in perspective, the 171,000 college degrees added in Manhattan in the last nine years would constitute by my quick look the 141st largest city in the United States in its own right, roughly equal to the entire population of Chattanooga, TN.

I thought it would be interesting to see what percentage of total population growth was accounted for by people with college degrees in these places. Given that they are generally low population growth, I was expecting a high number, but even I was surprised to see that growth in people with college degrees was actually more than 100% in most of the cases. In other words, the population of people without college degrees shrank in these places.

Hudson County, NJ actually lost population while adding about 45,000 people with college degrees. So I left it off the list.

This points out one of the negatives often highlighted about these cities, namely that they are getting more exclusive as increasingly you need to be in the educated elite to be able to live there (or at least to make it worth living there). This might be good for those cities at some level, but I’m not sure it’s entirely good for America.

This was a quick hand crank analysis, so a particular caveat emptor on this one. (I used Census midyear estimates for the population).

Here’s another experimental chart. I’m not sure how valid this is, but I applied a location quotient function to the numbers. LQ is normally used with employment data to measure the concentration of an industry in a region relative to the US concentration. If you have a number > 1.0, then you have a greater share than predicted by the US, and vice versa for < 1.0. Here I applied an LQ function for adults with college degrees, and looked at the change in that value over time:

As you can see, all of these places increased their concentration of college degrees relative to the US, with the exception of Alexandria. That city did grow degrees, but it was on such a high base to begin with that the percentage growth didn’t match the US percentage growth. But many of the rest of these were on a high base to begin with too, and still managed to increase their relative concentration. Manhattan already had an LQ > 2.0 in 2000, for example.

This was some of the data I was looking at this week, which will hopefully provide some context around the changes that have been happening in America in the last decade, particularly with regards to talent hubs.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Talent Attraction
Cities: New York

12 Responses to “College Degree Density Revisited”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    When I first saw the first chart, I was sure it referred to the absolute college degree density, not the change in density. It seems the main effect is that as more people have gone to college, college degree density will rise in percentage terms, which will translate to bigger absolute increases in college degree density.

  2. Eric says:

    I’m not sure what one can derive from this, but there are only four metro areas represented in these charts – NYC, Boston, DC, and San Francisco. Not a surprising group, and interesting stats. Though, this doesn’t seem to say much more than large, smart, densely populated cities are getting smarter, and maybe lends weight to the argument of an increasingly “spiky” world as far as educational attainment.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Eric, there isn’t all that much evidence for an increasingly spiky world, or country for that matter. The problem is that Richard Florida’s charts demonstrating this point are constructed so poorly that they make it impossible to determine whether there’s more spikiness or just more people in the US going to college.

  4. Alon, one reason I threw that LQ function in there is that I think in theory that should account for general increases in educational attainment over time. (Don’t forget, just by the less educated elderly cohorts dying, we increase educational attainment without any additional people graduating from college – neither of my paternal grandparents finished high school, for example. And that was not uncommon of their generation. 6-8 grades was all you needed).

  5. This is really good stuff. Did you also calculate for the opposite end of the spectrum? Counties which saw a decrease in degree density?

  6. Anon says:

    What may be more telling is change in degrees per capita, as you’ve noted a number of endogeneities with the density measure.

  7. mmph says:

    How much of this is due to the fact that people without college degrees are getting priced out of so much of Manhattan and Brooklyn (and Queens, to a lesser extent)?

  8. blucollaguy says:

    I agree with mmph. This is true in every major metro area. Higher skilled, higher paid, more educated workers are attracted to the center of economic activity, driving up housing prices and pushing out the common folk. The effect is becoming more pronounced as the gap widens between the haves and have-nots.

  9. Wad says:

    Blucollarguy, in the Pacific Northwest, you’re also seeing the same college-educated cohort but not the economic activity. Seattle and Portland have a reputation of being thinking-class hobo colonies.

  10. NrobertsSF says:

    While thrilled at San Francisco’s good showing, this really bodes ill in the long run. We need to keep diverse (and yes, some less educated) perspectives in the mix or we will lose perspective and potential options for progress in all communities.

  11. SeanSF says:

    Im curious as to the distinction between Bachelors and a Grad Degree, but I know the Census (at least 2000) does not distinguish. I’ve been a planner for 4 years now out of college and it appears that a Bachelor’s gets you less and less nowadays. Grad degrees generally promise a higher income, which would account for the high rents in these metro areas.

  12. Sean, the Census does distinguish bachelors from graduate degrees. My charts are all bachelors degree or higher. But I pulled the list on graduate degrees, and not many change:

    Row Geography 2000 2009 Per Sq. Mi. Change
    1 New York County, NY 11567.3 15562.8 3995.5
    2 Kings County, NY 1936.8 2757.5 820.7
    3 San Francisco County, CA 2086.6 2732.9 646.3
    4 District of Columbia, DC 1321.6 1894.4 572.8
    5 Arlington County, VA 1635.8 2153.4 517.6
    6 Suffolk County, MA 1051.4 1491.8 440.4
    7 Alexandria city, VA 1577.7 1989.6 411.9
    8 Hudson County, NJ 790.5 1146.1 355.6
    9 Queens County, NY 1266.6 1527.0 260.4
    10 Bronx County, NY 1105.8 1346.3 240.5

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

Telestrian Data Terminal


A production of the Urbanophile, Telestrian is the fastest, easiest, and best way to access public data about cities and regions, with totally unique features like the ability to create thematic maps with no technical knowledge and easy to use place to place migration data. It's a great way to support the Urbanophile, but more importantly it can save you tons of time and deliver huge value and capabilities to you and your organization.

Try It For 30 Days Free!

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.


Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Copyright Information