America’s Shrinking Cities Are Gaining Brains


If there’s one thing that’s a nearly universal anxiety among cities, it’s brain drain, or the loss of educated residents to other places. I’ve written about this many times over the years, critiquing the way it is normally conceived.

Since brain drain seems to be a major concern in shrinking cities, I decided to take a look at the facts around brains in those places. Looking at the 28 metro areas among the 100 largest that had objective measures of shrinkage – in population and/or jobs – between 2000 and 2013, I looked what what happened to their educational attainment levels.

My results were published in my Manhattan Institute study “Brain Gain in America’s Shrinking Cities.” As the title implies, my key findings were:

  • Every major metro area in the country that has been losing population and/or jobs is actually gaining people with college degrees at double digit rates.
  • As a whole the shrinking city group is holding its own with the country in terms of educational attainment rates, and in many cases outperforming it.
  • Even among younger adults, most shrinking cities are adding more of them with degrees, increasing their educated population share, and even catching up with the rest of the country in their college degree attainment levels.

The following chart of metro area population change vs. degree change for select cities should drive the point home.

Click through to read the whole thing.

In short, for most places, it looks like the battle against brain drain has actually been won. As people there can attest, thanks to many improvements public and private over the years, they are now viable places to live for higher end talent in a way they weren’t say 20 years ago. This means the attention and resources that have been devoted to this issue can now be put to more present day tasks such as repairing civic finances, rebuilding core public services, and creating more economic opportunity for those without degrees.

More commentary later perhaps, but for now please check out the report and share widely.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a Contributing Editor at City Journal. He writes at The Urbanophile.