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I felt compelled to write about this, because The Daily Beast did not.  They recently featured the results of Richard Florida’s “Top 25 Cities for College Graduates”, finding that Ithaca, New York was #1.  That’s right, Ithaca.

What?

Now, this list was supposed to highlight where recent graduates are likely to be comfortable settling:  finding a job, being around other young (single) people, and other amenities.  So it might surprise you that Ithaca is first, a bunch of other college towns are also high on the list (regardless of whether they’re in a big city or not), places like New York and DC are middling, Los Angeles is pretty low on the list, and Chicago does not make it at all.  Also, much as it pains me to say it … Albany (NY) makes the list, but Portland (OR) doesn’t?  What?

Granted, some choices like Austin or Boston make a lot of sense.  But Ithaca?!  So, let’s look at Florida’s criteria:

“These rankings are based on an index of nine statistical indicators … measures in the rankings include:

  • Presence of twentysomethings (20-24 year olds) in the population
  • Singles—measured as the share of unmarried people
  • Earnings potential—measured as average salary
  • Unemployment rate
  • College educated workforce—the share of the workforce with a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Rental housing—having an abundant, available stock of rental housing is key. We measured this as the share of all housing made up of rental units.
  • Youth-oriented amenities—like bars, restaurants, cafes, sports facilities and entertainment venues.
  • Creative capital–we use this to capture the creative energy of a place. It’s measured as the share of employed artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, designers, and entertainers in the workforce.
  • Openness–A region’s openness to new and different kinds of people reflects a lack of barriers and willingness to let newcomers, including young people, have a go. Our measure is the share of gays and lesbians and foreign-born residents in a community
  • Affordability–The overall rankings do not take housing costs into account. Generally speaking, new college grads are renters and can easily share apartments to reduce costs. It’s also difficult to get a handle on the full living costs borne by young people—some communities have accessible mass transit; in others, new grads must buy a car (and pay for insurance, maintenance, gas, and parking).

“We decided to break out an additional index to account for affordability. This index includes a variable for rent levels—median contract rent. It weights affordability at 25 percent of the overall index value, and lets the other nine indicators account for the remaining 75 percent.”

Sounds pretty good, right?  Except all of those exactly describe COLLEGE TOWNS – more specifically, towns dominated by a large university and who have attracted a significant population to the town in the first place.  Here’s how it measures up with Ithaca:

  • Presence of twentysomethings – Cornell has something like 20,000 students, and the city itself has 60,000 total.  You do the math.
  • Singles – see above; how many full-time Ivy undergrads are married?
  • Earnings potential – average salary?  You’re either earning nothing, an Ivy League professor, or you can afford to live in Ithaca.  Most of the (lower-income) service staff live well outside the city itself, because they can’t afford it.
  • Unemployment rate – again:  COLLEGE TOWN.  If you’re in college, you’re not unemployed because you’re not seeking work.  If you’re in grad school, ditto.  If you’re retired or the spouse of a professor, double ditto.  If you’re working at a coffee shop and on a quest to “find yourself,” don’t even count the number of dittos.
  • College educated workforce – … seriously?  Tompkins County has something like 50% adults 25+ with a bachelors or above.
  • Rental housing – … again, seriously?  Ithaca is 70% rental housing.  There’s no way any normal city could compete with that stat.
  • Youth-oriented amenities – COLLEGE TOWN.  It’s even got a whole freaking neighborhood called Collegetown.
  • Creative capital – this is pretty much code for “College Town or Big City.”  It is a good point; young people like culture and amenities.  But again, you can’t compete with a huge university for cultural offerings (AND the money to pay their honoraria).
  • Openness – “Our measure is the share of gays and lesbians and foreign-born residents in a community.”  Kind of a fair point on the first part, but DUHHHH on the second.  Especially a high-level (high-cost) school like Cornell.  Again, how could a large city really compete with that?
  • Affordability – it’s true that college students (or recent grads) split rent efficiently.  But they’re going to find cheap rent in college towns, and very few rental options in all but big cities.  And if that’s the only measure of affordability… I feel compelled to mention that I know of someone (via Craigslist sublet posting) who has actually paid $1800/mo for a 1 BR in (Collegetown) Ithaca.  ITHACA, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

So as far as I can tell, Florida came up with a brilliant way for identifying college towns, which I’m pretty sure you can do with a short stint on Google Maps.

What would make this index better?

  • Measuring how many other EMPLOYERS are in the area – since the damn list is supposed to be all about employment after school.  A college town is going to be well-employed because everyone already works at the college.  Those out on the job market, while sometimes they find jobs with the school, are more likely looking for work at another company or non-profit.  Look at who ELSE is hiring.  Ithaca, for one, has very little to offer a new grad, unless you want to stay with Cornell; want to work in agriculture; or happen to get a job with one of the various small companies in the area.  It doesn’t have much on a big city, and certainly is not a bountiful cornucopia of job opportunity.
  • Along the same lines, maybe measuring the number of start-up businesses – like the Boulder description implies, or like Silicon Valley shows, that is a more solid indicator of creative, educated talent making a start.
  • Measuring not college-age students, but householders (single or otherwise) from 25-35.  This covers people who actually stuck around after school, and who are not living with parents.  If you could cross-reference with educational attainment, so much the better.
  • If possible, better household ownership stats – are people right out of school buying condos (or townhouses or duplexes), not family-sized houses?  That seems a great indicator to me, knowing several people who have done that very thing.
  • Expand the definition of “creative.”  Florida seems to limit it to artists (visual, performing, etc) but those are very hard to measure and don’t include a broad enough spectrum of “interesting jobs” which I think he’s attempting to get at.  Might I suggest number of self-employed people?  Or number of locally-owned businesses?  Or perhaps a more qualitative rating based on festivals, annual events, concerts, etc?  Or whether or not they have some local equivalent of a Metromix events site?
  • Florida skirts around this, but you almost want to think he would include “Number of Democrats” in the ranking – the “Openness” category seems to want to go there, but doesn’t.  Maybe “Percentage Who Voted For Obama”?  (Note:  this one wouldn’t actually be very good, but who knows, maybe there’s some kind of crazy-high correlation after all.)
  • And finally, you could use a silly little indicator like “number of places to get a latte” or “price of a cup of coffee” or “frequency of recycling pickup” to get at the question of diversity.  You could even include something like Walkscore.  Something that doesn’t skew so heavily toward a college town (or big city) like the gay/lesbian and foreign-born indicators do.

In conclusion:  Seriously, Florida.  Ithaca?  Have you been to Ithaca?  Or more importantly, have you ever looked for a job in Ithaca?  It’s pretty and all, but … seriously.  Ithaca.

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This time next week I’ll be done with the semester and spending a relaxing weekend in Columbus … then this time in two weeks, I’ll be moved in and have started my internship in Chicago.

Trying to keep things in perspective as I finish up the semester, and this photo is a reminder that life is pretty good this time of year:

Have a good weekend everyone!