More on Education and the Remaking of the Rust Belt

The Cathedral of Learning on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.  Source: wikipedia.org
After my last blog post, I realized a couple of things.  First, I got a lot of feedback via e-mail and Twitter that suggested I made an egregious error by not mentioning Wayne State University, Michigan’s third largest university after Michigan State and Michigan, as a critical asset contributing to Detroit’s revitalization.  Second, I also realized that the analysis I did in the first piece would be somewhat incomplete if I didn’t see how Rust Belt metros compared to the rest of the country.  Here I’ll address both points, starting with the second point first.

Let’s start with some background: the study that kicked off the discussion was a paper from Cleveland State University’s Center for Population Dynamics, which highlighted changes within the respective labor forces in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.  Specifically, they were gaining large numbers of well-educated young adults — when compared to the largest 40 metro areas in the U.S., Pittsburgh and Cleveland were ranked third and eighth respectively in the percentage of adults age 25-34 with graduate or professional degrees in their workforce, surpassing metros known for having well-educated labor forces like Chicago, Seattle and Austin.  The paper goes on to suggest that Rust Belt metros may be nearing the end of their economic transition, and that they are beginning to restructure their economies in the same way that coastal metros like New York and Boston have already done.

My blog post built on that by looking at the rankings of the eleven Rust Belt metros on the list, to see if there were any trends.  I made a couple of assumptions based on the data presented:

First, I looked at the educational attainment data by population as functions of talent production — a measure of the number and quality of educational institutions within a given metro area.  I looked at educational attainment data by labor force as functions of talent attraction — the ability of a metro area to to bring, in this case, young educated people into the workforce.  This may be only partly true, but it’s a start.

Second, I put the rankings for the eleven Rust Belt metros in the study into a table.  I averaged out the ranking scores for the two population categories and the two labor force categories, and that gave me a sense of an overall ranking in terms of overall ranking of talent production and attraction.  

The last thing I did was to regard and evaluate each metro in one of three tiers of production and attraction — high, modest and low for each category. 

Given those assumptions, I said that economic restructuring was apparent in the Rust Belt, and presented this table:

Basically I implied that if the future of the American economy will be based on metro ability to produce and attract well-educated people, the Rust Belt is doing a good job of it.  Chicago and Pittsburgh seem to be leading the way, several midsize Rust Belt metros are keeping pace, and Detroit as well as Cleveland appear to be gaining quickly.

But exactly how well are Rust Belt metros doing when compared to the others included in the original analysis?  Let’s see.

Since I pulled out the eleven Rust Belt metros in the earlier post, I grouped the remaining 29 metros as either coastal (East and West Coast) or Sun Belt (generally southern, western and southwestern metros) for analysis.  Some may quibble with the breakdowns, but hey, they are what they are.

For the eleven coastal metros, the ranking table looks like this:

And if these numbers mean anything, the attraction/production table looks like this:

In many respects this confirms what we know about coastal metros — they attract and produce lots of highly educated young workers, and they are critical to their economies.  They certainly outpace Rust Belt metros, but as the original paper suggests, Rust Belt metros may be becoming more like the coastal metros in terms of their highly educated talent production and attraction.

But how does the Sun Belt compare?  There were 18 metros I identified as Sun Belt metros, so I have two ranking tables to show them.  Here’s how their rankings appear:

And here:

Which creates an attraction/production table that looks like this:

What this tells me is that of the Sun Belt metros, only Austin and San Diego, and to a lesser extent Denver, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Nashville, are doing well at attracting or producing the well-educated young workers who will create the next economy.  The balance of the Sun Belt metros lag in attraction and production of well educated young workers.

This also tells me that the Rust Belt metros are banking on knowledge in ways that the Sun Belt may not, and that Rust Belt metros may begin to mirror coastal metros, at least in terms of labor force profile, in the not-too-distant future.  What will that mean for the Sun Belt metros?  They’ll have to determine that for themselves.

Finally, there were many who took exception to my point in the original post that Detroit was doing an admirable job in attracting highly educated young workers despite not having a premier educational institution in the metro area.  I thought at first the response would be from University of Michigan graduates stating that Ann Arbor is indeed part of the Detroit metro area and is a significant feeder into the labor force.  But instead, I heard from many saying that Wayne State is the institution fulfilling that role in Detroit, and that I made an oversight.

Let me go on the record by saying that Wayne State is a wonderful school that has embraced its place in Detroit, and is a fantastic research institution.  However, I view Wayne State — and I think most people do — in the way you view other public universities with an urban focus.  It increases access to higher education for residents, and its research is often directly applicable to issues in the metro area.  There are many schools like this throughout the country.  Here in the Midwest, the University of Illinois-Chicago, where I received my masters in urban planning, plays the same role.  Cleveland State in Cleveland, Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Milwaukee, IUPUI in Indianapolis, UMKC in Kansas City all fulfill the same role in their respective metros.

But there are a group of private universities that have a wider reach and a broader mission, and that’s what I was referring to.  Harvard and MIT in Boston; Stanford in the Bay Area; Johns Hopkins in Baltimore; Georgetown in Washington; Northwestern and the University of Chicago here in Chicago; and yes, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and Case Western in Cleveland fit that mold.  The wider reach and broader mission of these schools means more new people and new ideas can circulate into the metro area.  Detroit does lack that type of institution.  That helps when cities are trying to conceive what their future will be.

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