Is Your Metro Learning?

Detroit auto workers

My dad, a Methodist pastor in Saginaw, Michigan, and I often talk about the issues that concern Rust Belt shrinking cities like his.  My dad has been in Saginaw for 15 years, and he would be the first to tell you that the city has been in a long, slow decline throughout his entire tenure.  Indeed, Saginaw is a city that approached 100,000 residents at its peak in 1960, and barely had more than 50,000 residents when the 2010 Census was taken.  The plummeting economy has pushed residents elsewhere.
My dad has often lamented about the lack of an entrepreneurial culture in much of Michigan that could spur economic development through the establishment of new businesses.  But if you ask him, the biggest thing holding cities like Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac and Lansing behind is the manufacturing or “working man’s” culture.  That culture, the one that celebrated getting a Big Three or supplier factory job after high school graduation (with union protection), and waiting 30 years to cash in on a plush pension, has long been a thing of the past in the rest of the nation, but is still dearly held onto in Michigan.  And if he were to identify the single biggest detriment of this cultural perspective, it would be its devaluation of education. 
Many people of my dad’s generation, even African Americans, fondly remember a time when “you could roll out of bed and get a job.”  You could get a factory job anywhere, make a very good living to support yourself and a growing family, and stay virtually as long as you wanted.  Not much was required of these workers; you showed up on time, you did your part on the assembly line or you met your quota of made parts, and that was it.  If you were fortunate enough to be promoted, maybe you were also able to get your son the same kind of job that you once had.  It is not hyperbole to state that Michigan showed the nation how to create the middle class. 
But this was not the kind of culture that prepared Michigan for globalization.  The “roll out of bed and get a job” era plateaued in the ‘50s, as factories started moving from city to suburbs, and effectively ended by the late ‘60s, as the broader forces of automation, foreign competition and the shifting of jobs out of the region (first to the South, and then out of the country) all combined to have a devastating impact on the Michigan economy. 
Unfortunately, the economic climate changed but the “working man’s” culture did not.  For decades, there was no incentive for Michigan residents to pursue an education beyond high school if a middle class lifestyle could be obtained without one.  Sure, there were many families that believed in what I would call the “economic escalator” – factory workers who raised children who would attend college and later seek professional positions – but there were just as many who told their children that they, too could get a job at the plant when their time came.
This has ultimately left shrinking cities with a challenging legacy: a culture that devalues education, a populace undereducated relative to today’s needs, and an educational infrastructure ill-prepared to deal with current realities.
Today, Rust Belt metros are climbing out of their educational chasm and making strides toward competing with the more educated metros in the nation.  However, they do lag behind the educational attainment leaders, which also happen to have some of the strongest, most diverse and sustainable regional economies in the nation.  I looked at the levels of bachelor’s degree attainment of the 50 largest metropolitan areas of the U.S. (those with more than one million residents), and found some pretty staggering variety.  The average number of persons age 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree in the metro areas observed is 31.7%.  The usual suspects occupy the top of the list.  Look below to see the top ten:
Bachelor’s Degree Attainment by MSA Top Ten of Largest 50 MSAs
Metro Area
Percent bachelor’s degree or higher
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV  Metro Area
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA  Metro Area
San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA  Metro Area
Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH  Metro Area
Raleigh-Cary, NC  Metro Area
Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX  Metro Area
Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO  Metro Area
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI  Metro Area
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA  Metro Area
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA  Metro Area
Source: 2010 Census
The acknowledged tech, academic and government centers of the nation head this list. How have our nation’s shrinking cities metros fared?  First, let me note that I ascribe the “shrinking city” moniker to cities that have lost 20% or more of their population since a post-World War II peak.  I’ve included the rank out of the top 50 MSAs for perspective:
Bachelor’s Degree Attainment for “Shrinking City” MSAs
Metro Area
Percent bachelor’s degree or higher
Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH  Metro Area
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI  Metro Area
Baltimore-Towson, MD  Metro Area
Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT  Metro Area
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI  Metro Area
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD  Metro Area
St. Louis, MO-IL  Metro Area
Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN  Metro Area
Pittsburgh, PA  Metro Area
Providence-New Bedford-Fall River, RI-MA  Metro Area
Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY  Metro Area
Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH  Metro Area
Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI  Metro Area
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA  Metro Area
Birmingham-Hoover, AL  Metro Area
Source: 2010 Census
There appears to be a divide in the middle of the above table.  While I don’t have the means to provide detailed economic information on each MSA, it could be said that, using the last decade as a barometer, the metros that have more than thirty percent of its residents with at least a bachelor’s degree have been strong economic performers (Boston), or tenuous maintainers (Chicago, Philadelphia).  Those below that thirty percent threshold could be said to be economic underperformers (with the exception of Pittsburgh).  Several of the Rust Belt cities at the bottom of the above table (St. Louis; Providence; Buffalo; Cleveland; Detroit) could also be said to have large doses of the “working man’s” culture. 
Now let’s look at the bottom ten:
Bachelor’s Degree Attainment by MSA, Bottom Ten of Largest 50 MSAs
Metro Area
Percent bachelor’s degree or higher
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA  Metro Area
Las Vegas-Paradise, NV  Metro Area
Memphis, TN-MS-AR  Metro Area
San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX  Metro Area
Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN  Metro Area
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL  Metro Area
Birmingham-Hoover, AL  Metro Area
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA  Metro Area
Jacksonville, FL  Metro Area
Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ  Metro Area
Source: 2010 Census
It’s clear that growth-oriented Sun Belt metros dominate this list.  My uninformed guess is that a low cost of living and an abundance of low-to-moderate wage jobs attracted many low-educated migrants in recent years.  Will the metros be able to compete in coming years?  I don’t know – it seems highly educated individuals who move there may be able to prosper, but each metro will have to address its educational concerns to compete on a national and global scale.  And the Rust Belt cities may have a leg up.

One thought on “Is Your Metro Learning?

  1. For what it's worth, Pittsburgh's college attainment rate is skewed lower by its older population. There is a uniformly inverse correlation between age and educational attainment in Pittsburgh, with the 55+ population being college-educated at a rate much lower than the metropolitan average, and the 25-44 population being college-educated at a rate much higher than the metropolitan average. (The 45-54 population is about average in this regard.) But since the older, less educated age cohorts have either already left or begun to leave the workforce, the remaining workforce has become markedly more educated, which has buoyed the local economy.

    I saw a graph detailing the college attainment by age in Pittsburgh and the three largest metropolitan areas in Ohio, and the trend exhibited by Pittsburgh was astounding. In 1980, Pittsburgh was most like Cleveland in terms of college attainment, but since 2000 has been more like Cincinnati, which has always been a relatively white-collar city in the region. If the trends hold, though, then Pittsburgh will be most similar to Columbus by 2020. Both Cleveland and Cincinnati have seen gains in college attainment by their younger age cohorts, but not nearly to the degree that Pittsburgh has. This is part of why Pittsburgh has performed relatively well economically since 2000, and why I expect it to perform even better in the near future.

    As for the Ohio cities, I expect Columbus to remain a fast-growing dynamo like Indianapolis, Nashville and Raleigh, and Cincinnati to remain a less glamorous but still relatively pleasant metropolitan area like St. Louis and Kansas City. Cleveland still has a long way to go, but maybe examining Chicago and Milwaukee would be a good start. And as Pittsburgh finds its legs, I think it should look to the larger cities on the East Coast for inspiration, specifically Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, all of which used to be heavily industrial themselves, but have been able to reinvent themselves through their civic, academic and cultural assets.


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