Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Import Their College Graduates

Relying on outside talent can help feed dynamic economies, but it also exacerbates achievement gaps and social tensions.

Biggest cities for job growth import college grads
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With spec­tac­u­lar scenery, a vi­brant eco­nomy, and a bust­ling down­town scene, few cit­ies can match Den­ver’s suc­cess in at­tract­ing tal­en­ted, well-edu­cated young people from across Amer­ica.

Yet with all these ad­vant­ages, the city is still strug­gling to equip loc­al low-in­come Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and His­pan­ic kids to com­pete for the jobs its eco­nomy de­vel­ops. While a mag­net for those who ac­quire skills else­where, the city has struggled more to el­ev­ate its own young people, nearly half of whom are now minor­it­ies. “We call this The Col­or­ado Para­dox,” John Hick­en­loop­er, the former may­or of Den­ver and now the state’s Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, told me re­cently. “We have about the highest per­cent­age of people with col­lege de­grees in the coun­try, yet we have real chal­lenges with large por­tions of our pop­u­la­tion in get­ting them to com­plete high school and then at­tend and get through col­lege.”

That’s not a prob­lem unique to Den­ver, or Col­or­ado. Work­ing-age blacks and His­pan­ics lag be­hind white edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment levels even—and of­ten es­pe­cially—in places that are set­ting the pace in adding jobs, rais­ing in­comes, or both. To fuel their dy­nam­ic eco­nom­ies, many of those fast-growth cit­ies are re­ly­ing more on im­port­ing col­lege gradu­ates from else­where in the coun­try than on de­vel­op­ing their own tal­ent. That strategy presents po­ten­tial long-term eco­nom­ic risks, but even more im­me­di­ate polit­ic­al and so­cial chal­lenges in an era when the en­dur­ing op­por­tun­ity gap in ma­jor cit­ies is height­en­ing ra­cial ten­sions ig­nited by dis­putes over po­lice be­ha­vi­or.

Next Amer­ica is ana­lyz­ing work­force trends in the na­tion’s 150 largest met­ro­pol­it­an area us­ing edu­ca­tion, in­come and jobs data from the Na­tion­al Equity At­las. The At­las is a joint pro­ject of Poli­cyLink, an Oak­land-based policy re­search or­gan­iz­a­tion, and the Uni­versity of South­ern Cali­for­nia’s Pro­gram for En­vir­on­ment­al and Re­gion­al Equity. Us­ing Census and oth­er gov­ern­ment data, the At­las provides a de­tailed por­trait of demo­graph­ic, edu­ca­tion­al and in­come trends in the na­tion’s largest met­ro­pol­it­an areas.

In the work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion (defined as adults between ages 25 and 64), few­er Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and His­pan­ics than whites hold col­lege de­grees in cit­ies across the spec­trum from the most to least pros­per­ous, the ana­lys­is found. But the gaps are of­ten widest in the buzz­ing, in­form­a­tion-age cit­ies with the greatest ap­peal to col­lege gradu­ates from around the coun­try.

Of the 75 cit­ies with the biggest gap in col­lege com­ple­tion between work­ing-age whites and blacks, three-quar­ters also rank in the top half for col­lege achieve­ment among whites. Three-fifths of those 75 cit­ies also rank in the top half for me­di­an in­come among the largest met­ro­pol­it­an areas.

Biggest cities for job growth import college grads National Journal

Com­pared to oth­er cit­ies, these places are also home to re­l­at­ively more Afric­an-Amer­ic­an col­lege gradu­ates: just over half of the cit­ies with the widest black-white col­lege com­ple­tion gaps ac­tu­ally rank in the top half of over­all col­lege achieve­ment for blacks. But the big gaps between the work­ing-age white and black col­lege com­ple­tion levels in those places sug­gests their growth is do­ing re­l­at­ively more to pull in tal­ent from around the coun­try than to pull up tal­ent from their own most troubled neigh­bor­hoods. Above all, these trends sug­gest that even boom­ing growth by it­self can­not dis­lodge en­trenched pat­terns of poverty and dis­ad­vant­age across met­ro­pol­it­an areas.

In places with the largest con­cen­tra­tions of work­ing-age white col­lege gradu­ates, the share of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an adults hold­ing that much edu­ca­tion is usu­ally half or less of the white level, with at­tain­ment among His­pan­ics trail­ing even fur­ther be­hind. Wash­ing­ton; Durham, North Car­o­lina; San Fran­cisco; Bridge­port, Con­necti­c­ut; and San Jose, Cali­for­nia, are the met­ro­pol­it­an areas with the largest share of work­ing-age col­lege-edu­cated whites, all ex­ceed­ing 55 per­cent. But across those five areas, the share of col­lege-edu­cated Afric­an-Amer­ic­an adults ex­ceeds 30 per­cent only in D.C. and San Jose (where the black pop­u­la­tion is min­is­cule.) The num­bers are even worse for all His­pan­ics (al­though between 30 and 40 per­cent of nat­ive-born His­pan­ics have achieved col­lege de­grees in San Jose, Durham, and Wash­ing­ton.)

These gaps “in­crease so­cial se­greg­a­tion where re­cruit­ing for the high­er-skill jobs is done in a world that is al­most in­vis­ible to people who are out­side of it, even if they are liv­ing there,” says Vic­tor Ru­bin, Poli­cyLink’s vice pres­id­ent of re­search.

James John­son, dir­ect­or of the Urb­an In­vest­ment Strategies Cen­ter at the Uni­versity of North Car­o­lina (Chapel Hill) says that even in a place like Durham, with a re­l­at­ively high pro­por­tion of black col­lege gradu­ates, many of the young people who are reared there are ut­terly dis­con­nec­ted from the re­gion’s eco­nom­ic vi­tal­ity. Durham en­joys one of the na­tion’s high­er share of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an col­lege gradu­ates (28 per­cent) both be­cause of its con­cen­tra­tion of loc­al uni­versit­ies—in­clud­ing UNC, Duke, and North Car­o­lina Cent­ral Uni­versity, a his­tor­ic­ally black col­lege—but also be­cause the area’s his­tor­ic repu­ta­tion as the “black Wall Street” made it at­tract­ive to Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pro­fes­sion­als from oth­er re­gions.

“There has been this black pro­fes­sion­al class in the city writ large, both in en­tre­pren­eur­i­al cul­ture and en­sconced in city and loc­al gov­ern­ment, a pro­fes­sion­al class of doc­tors and law­yers that has a long his­tory here,” John­son says. “But there’s enorm­ous se­greg­a­tion in the K-12 sys­tem, where the schools that most of the kids of col­or at­tend are un­der-re­sourced schools, are hy­per-se­greg­ated, and that’s prob­ably got­ten worse over time in this city.”

The res­ult, he says, is that even loc­al kids who com­plete high school are of­ten un­pre­pared to fin­ish col­lege—which leaves them un­able to pur­sue the high-tech em­ploy­ment that has blos­somed across the re­gion for dec­ades. “Loc­al kids aren’t even com­pet­ing for those jobs,” John­son says, “be­cause when you have the op­por­tun­ity to re­cruit tal­ent glob­ally for skills and tal­ent, you don’t have to be so con­cerned about the qual­ity of edu­ca­tion loc­ally, in a sense. Kids of col­or just aren’t even a part of the mix today.”

An­oth­er set of Census data re­in­forces that con­clu­sion by show­ing that many of the na­tion’s fast-growth cit­ies are re­ly­ing more on re­cruit­ing tal­ent from else­where in the coun­try than on de­vel­op­ing their own. The PERE pro­gram ran for Next Amer­ica a sep­ar­ate ana­lys­is of Census data for the 20 Amer­ic­an cit­ies that have ad­ded the most jobs since 2000. That ana­lys­is found that in all of those cit­ies, the share of loc­al adults born in­side the state with a four-year col­lege de­gree or more lagged be­hind the share of col­lege-edu­cated adults from out­side the state. For many of those cit­ies, the gaps are enorm­ous.

In Den­ver, fully half of out-of-state adults in the area hold a col­lege de­gree, com­pared to less than one-third of those born in Col­or­ado. In Bal­timore, where ra­cial vi­ol­ence flared this month, the gap is even wider: The share of its work­ing age adults born out-of-state with a col­lege de­gree (53 per­cent) is fully double the share of its Mary­land res­id­ents with that much edu­ca­tion (26 per­cent). In Hou­s­ton, which ranks near the top in job cre­ation, 41 per­cent of out-of-state adults hold col­lege de­grees, com­pared to just 26 per­cent of those born in-state. In Char­lotte and At­lanta, the gap between out- and in-state de­gree hold­ers ap­proaches 20 per­cent­age points; in Wash­ing­ton, it nears 30 per­cent­age points (though the D.C. area ac­tu­ally does a bet­ter job than most in mov­ing loc­al res­id­ents through col­lege com­ple­tion).

Even­tu­ally, re­ly­ing on im­por­ted tal­ent will be­come more dif­fi­cult for all cit­ies be­cause the over­all share of col­lege gradu­ates could start to de­cline by around 2020 if the Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and His­pan­ics who com­prise an in­creas­ing slice of the youth pop­u­la­tion don’t im­prove their com­ple­tion rates. Still, An­thony Carne­vale, dir­ect­or of the Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force, says at­tract­ive, dy­nam­ic cit­ies will likely be able to lure enough smart young people from else­where to fuel their growth for some time. “It’s a very tried and true pat­tern,” he says. “You’ve got the jobs, just bring tal­ent in from the out­side, let some­body else pay for [edu­cat­ing] it.”

The real is­sue, he says, may be less the eco­nom­ic than polit­ic­al sus­tain­ab­il­ity of a growth mod­el that at­tracts a rising tide of well-edu­cated trans­plants while leav­ing many loc­al res­id­ents ma­rooned with few skills. “What happened in Bal­timore raises an­oth­er ques­tion,” Carne­vale said. “It’s eco­nom­ic­ally sus­tain­able. But in the end is it so­cially sus­tain­able? Can you keep the peace?”

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