College graduates are flocking to America’s big cities, chasing jobs and culture and driving up home prices.
Though many of the largest cities have lost population in the past three decades, nearly all have added college graduates, an analysis by The Associated Press found.
The findings offer hope for urban areas, many of which have spent decades struggling with financial problems, job losses and high poverty rates.
But they also spell trouble for some cities, especially those in the Northeast and Midwest, that have fallen behind the South and West in attracting highly educated workers.
“The largest predictor of economic well-being in cities is the percent of college graduates,” said Ned Hill, professor of economic development at Cleveland State University. To do well, he said, cities must be attractive to educated people.
Nationally, a little more than one-fourth of people 25 and older had at least bachelor’s degrees in 2004. Some 84 percent had high school diplomas or the equivalent.
By comparison, in 1970 only a bit more than one in 10 adults had bachelor’s degrees and about half had high school diplomas.
Seattle was the best-educated city in 2004 with just over half the adults having bachelor’s degrees. Following closely were San Francisco; Raleigh, N.C.; Washington and Austin, Texas.
Molly Wankel, who has a doctorate in educational administration, said she moved to the Washington area for a job, and the culture of the city pulled her from the suburbs. Wankel, 51, grew up in eastern Tennessee and works at a company that develops software and training materials. She recently bought a home in the city.
“I just enjoy walking around looking at the architecture and the way people have renovated these 100-year-old homes,” Wankel said. “I love the landscaping and the lovely mix of many races, straight people, gays, singles, older people, younger people.”
The AP analyzed census data from 21 of the largest cities from 1970 to 2004. The AP used every-10-year census data from 1970 to 2000, and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2004.
The 21 cities were chosen because of their size and location to provide regional balance. The analysis was expanded for 2004, the latest year for data, to include all 70 cities with populations of 250,000 or more.
While most states in the Northeast have high percentages of college graduates, their big cities do not.
Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey were among the top five states in the percentage of adults with college degrees in 2004. But the Northeast placed no city among the top five, and only one from the region — Boston — was in the top 20.
Cities with few college graduates have a hard time generating good-paying jobs. That, in turn, makes it hard to attract more college graduates, said Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University.
Cities such as Newark, N.J.; Detroit and Cleveland have relatively few college graduates, which helps explain why they are struggling to recover from the decline of U.S. manufacturing, Vedder said.
Among the three, Cleveland had the largest share of college graduates in 2004, 14 percent of those 25 and older.
“Society is paying people more for their brains than for their brawn,” Vedder said. “The nerds and the wimps and the geeks are ruling the world.”
College graduates made about two-thirds more money than high school graduates in 2004, according to the Census Bureau. The median income — the point at which half make more and half make less — for adults with bachelor’s degrees was $42,404. It was $25,360 for high school graduates.
Adults who did not graduate high school had a median income of $18,144.
Many cities with a lot of college graduates also have expensive homes, even with the softening real estate market.
San Francisco was the costliest in 2004, with a median home value of $662,000, according to census data. That was more than four times the national median of $151,000.
Cities that want to increase their pool of skilled labor need to foster an environment that welcomes outsiders, including immigrants and people from elsewhere in the U.S., said Richard Florida, professor of public policy at George Mason University.
“You know what they say, they say we want our kids back. We want them to stop leaving,” Florida said, paraphrasing leaders of many depressed cities. “What they don’t say is that they want other people’s kids to move there.”
Most big cities are strapped with struggling public schools and need to attract outsiders to improve education levels among adults. It’s possible, in part because unmarried college graduates are the most mobile demographic group, according to census data.
“Cities have realized that they can attract educated people and they don’t need good schools to do it,” said Florida, who wrote the book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.”
But cities need good schools to keep people from fleeing to the suburbs once they become parents, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Frey pointed to Washington, a city with lagging public schools but impressive education levels among adults.
“D.C. is like a revolving door,” Frey said. “These young people move in and then they move out when they want to have kids.”
But Wankel, the Tennessee native, said she has no plans to leave Washington. She said she would miss the restaurants, museums and convenient public transportation, what she calls “civilization.”
“I had always been a small town girl, and I didn’t know if I could adjust to living in a big city,” Wankel said. “Now, I don’t want to go back to the suburbs.”