College Grads and Have-Not Cities

Great story in the New York Times today about the increasing stratification of college graduates between have and have-not cities, using Dayton Ohio as an example.  Initial disclaimer – this is at least partly a pure a statistical artifact.  In 1970, 12% of urban Americans had bachelor’s degree, while it’s 32% today.  Even if you assume a similar distribution around the mean, the numerical value of the variance will necessarily be greater.

That said, this is still interesting and concerning for the fates of various small and medium-sized cities around the US.  The US is unlike most other first-world nations in having historically had lots of unusually well-off and economically vibrant cities outside of a very small number of core metro areas.  That number is usually one!  London, Paris, Tokyo come to mind.  Italy and Spain both have two highly-developed urban centers (Milan/Rome and Barcelona/Madrid) as a result of historical fragmentation, and Germany has a large number of highly-developed urban centers thanks to the highly-fragmented and highly-developed principates of the pre-Bismarck system.  If places like Dayton turn out to resemble third-tier Spanish cities rather than third-tier German ones…well, it wouldn’t be totally shocking but it would resemble a large downgrade in the relative quality of life for Dayton.

Matt Yglesias intelligently points out that this will create increasing incentives for areas to underinvest in education, since a public dollar spent on educating a college student in Dayton is more likely to subsidize Chicago or even Cleveland’s economy than Dayton’s.  However, this isn’t necessarily correct!

It’s a well-known fact that the land grant universities of my native Midwest are all of a much higher quality than the median East Coast public university. But the Dayton dynamic remains the same, has been the case for a long time, and is in fact very well-known to both the students and the state governments funding those universities.  Most talented students graduating from University of, say, Kansas get a high-quality education that will leave enable them to leave Kansas, and that’s one of the big draws for Kansas applicants.  Yet despite this being the case, Kansas has maintained the high-quality public education system really is well-understood by all parties to be a major channel of brain drain for Kansas.  At least until the systematic underinvestment in all areas of state government beginning in the 80s, but that’s neither here nor there.

I don’t really have any brilliant explanations as to why this is…just point out this argument hasn’t really played out this way so far.

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