The U.S. Cities Getting Smarter The Fastest


It’s a commonplace among pundits and economic developers that smart people flock to “smart” places like sparrows to Capistrano. Reflecting the conventional wisdom, The New York Times recently opined that “college graduates gravitate to places with many other college graduates and the atmosphere that creates.”

Yet an analysis of Census data shared with Forbes by demographer Wendell Cox tells a different story. In the past decade, the metropolitan areas that have enjoyed the fastest growth in their college-educated populations have not been the places known as hip, intellectual hotbeds.

Perhaps the myth most devastated by the study, which looked at the change in the number of people with bachelor’s degrees in the 51 largest metropolitan statistical areas from 2000-2010, is that there is, as the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has insisted, a “bipolar population shift” in which the educated go to the expensive blue regions while families and dummies (often conflated as the same thing) flock to the brain-dead reaches of the Sunbelt. In fact, during the first decade of the 21st century, the number of college graduates in Las Vegas increased by a remarkable 78%, the biggest jump in the nation over the period, while in second place Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif., the college-educated population expanded by 60%. Other surprise cities in the top 10 — Charlotte, N.C. , (No. 5) ; San Antonio (No. 6); Jacksonville, Fla. (No. 7); Orlando (eighth); and Nashville, Tenn. (ninth) — all saw 40% to 50% increases in their college-educated population.

Among the more conventional “brain” cities, the biggest winners from 2000 to 2010 tended to be lower-cost metropolitan areas with less dense cores, such as Raleigh–Durham, N.C. (No. 3), and Austin, Texas (No. 4). In contrast, the more expensive places celebrated for being smart expanded their populations of college grads at roughly half that rate, such as San Francisco (48th), San Jose (43rd), Boston (45th) and New York (39th).

This is not to say that these cities don’t boast huge concentrations of educated people. The largest metro areas, led by New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, have the biggest populations with bachelor’s degrees. And on a per capita basis, Washington D.C. (aka “parasite city”), San Francisco, Boston, Denver and Minneapolis lead the way, with a share of college grads 20% or more above the national average.

But other metro areas are catching up. In Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., for example, the share of the population that’s college-educated grew from 21.7%  to 26.2%, a gain of 21%. This is roughly twice the increase in the Washington, San Francisco and Seattle metropolitan areas.

This trend  doesn’t extend to all lower-cost regions. The Sunbelt has generally gained, but some Rust Belt towns have not fared as well. Cleveland, for example, ranked 50th in terms of its growth of its college-educated population, Detroit 49th and Buffalo 48th. Low costs, not surprisingly,  don’t compensate for poor economic conditions, decayed infrastructure and bad weater.

Yet the pattern is clear: brainpower is spreading out. The notion that companies seeking skilled labor have to go to one of the “hip” cities — an idea relentlessly marketed by the New York and D.C.-based press — appears greatly overstated. In reality, skilled, college-educated people are increasingly now scattered throughout the country, and often not where you’d expect them. For example, Charlotte, N.C., Columbus, Ohio, Kansas City and Atlanta now boast about the same per capita number of college grads as Portland and Chicago, and have higher per capita concentrations of grads over the age of 25 than Los Angeles.

These trends also suggest that, in many ways, the highly educated are not so different from Americans who never went to college or never graduated. The factors that have driven economic outperformance by some cities over the past decade — lower home prices, better business climate, job opportunities — also attract people with bachelor’s degrees.

Atlanta, Houston and Dallas each have added 300,000 college grads in the past decade. This is far more than Boston’s increase of 240,000 or San Francisco’s 211,000. Once considered backwaters, these Sunbelt cities now all enjoy a critical mass of educated people.

Houston boasts a percentage of college grads over 25 somewhat above the national average. Dallas-Fort Worth is just about at the national average. The total Houston increase in college grads over the past decade amounts to three times that of the capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose, Calif., twice that of San Diego and more than Philadelphia. Since hipness is not a well-known Houston trait (though it did place first this year on Forbes’ list of America’s Coolest Cities), and climate can hardly be seen as a positive, one has to imagine this growth has something to do with a job machine that has created over 100,000 new positions between 2006 and 2011.

The addition of college grads leads to changes on the ground that tend to make cities even more attractive to future graduates. In the case of Houston, there’s been a proliferation of more sophisticated restaurants, clubs and bars in growing inner-city districts like Houston Heights, Montrose and Midtown.

In the past, executives often turned up their noses at the prospect of relocating to the Gulf Coast metropolis, says Chris Schoettelkotte, founder of the Houston-based recruiting firm Manhattan Resources. Now, particularly given the weak national economy, Houston is increasingly competitive in the race to recruit skilled, educated labor, he says. This is particularly true with people at the beginning of their career. “I don’t get the pushback I used to get,” Schoettelkotte says. The message to recruits: “ You try to find a city with a better economy and better job prospects than us.”

A democratization and dispersion of educated workers bodes well for the U.S. economy. When highly skilled labor is concentrated in a few places, such as Boston or the Bay Area, opportunities for growth tend to be limited by extremely high business and housing costs. Having more places with educated workers gives employers and entrepreneurs more options for where to start a business or relocate.

Looking ahead, we can expect this trend to continue, particularly as the current bulge of millennial graduates mature and start to look for affordable places to live and work. Regions that maintain strong job growth, and keep their housing costs down, are likely to keep gaining on those metropolitan areas celebrated for being the winners of the race for educated people.

Metropolitan Growth in Age 25+ Population with Bachelor Degrees
Rank Region Total Growth Percent Growth
1 Las Vegas 122,304 78.4%
2 Riverside 187,406 60.0%
3 Raleigh 107,075 55.2%
4 Austin 147,341 52.3%
5 Charlotte 126,226 51.7%
6 San Antonio 111,739 48.1%
7 Jacksonville 77,102 46.8%
8 Orlando 125,299 46.6%
9 Nashville 92,823 42.4%
10 Phoenix 216,585 42.1%
11 Tampa 145,675 39.6%
12 Houston 300,952 39.5%
13 Louisville 61,312 37.6%
14 Portland 134,935 37.2%
15 Dallas 336,993 36.9%
16 Atlanta 308,306 36.1%
17 Sacramento 108,151 35.8%
18 Denver 169,553 35.2%
19 Indianapolis 90,001 34.5%
20 Oklahoma City 56,117 33.5%
21 Richmond 67,012 33.4%
22 Columbus 96,905 33.2%
23 Miami 262,394 31.7%
24 Virginia Beach 73,110 31.2%
25 Seattle 205,977 31.2%
26 Kansas City 103,527 31.0%
27 Salt Lake City 46,205 30.5%
28 Washington 410,679 30.5%
29 Minneapolis 189,209 29.9%
30 Baltimore 146,285 29.6%
31 San Diego 154,845 29.6%
32 St. Louis 128,617 29.5%
United States 13,115,437 29.5%
33 Cincinnati 90,374 28.3%
34 Los Angeles 559,904 27.7%
35 Memphis 45,141 27.4%
36 Philadelphia 281,686 27.2%
37 Birmingham 41,436 26.3%
38 Chicago 429,001 25.5%
39 New York 905,618 24.4%
40 Milwaukee 63,508 24.3%
41 Providence 59,926 24.1%
42 Rochester 44,268 23.6%
43 San Jose 102,609 22.5%
44 Pittsburgh 88,370 22.3%
45 Boston 240,426 22.0%
46 Hartford 49,225 20.8%
47 Buffalo 36,578 20.1%
48 San Francisco 211,835 19.2%
49 Detroit 109,429 16.2%
50 Cleveland 51,259 14.9%
51 New Orleans 19,307 10.1%

Data source: U.S. Decennial Census 2000 and 2010.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes.

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