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Engineers are concentrated in San Jose, while D.C. has the most social scientists with advanced degrees.

Brainpower is the fuel that fires today’s tech-driven knowledge economy. But it is also unevenly concentrated across America’s cities and metros, so much so that mayors and policy-makers have developed strategies specifically aimed at increasing their ability to attract, retain, and capture powerful brains.

We already know a lot about where college graduates and the creative class tend to concentrate. An even more rarified category of brainpower is made up of people with advanced graduate and professional degrees. While nearly 40 percent of Americans have a college degree and about a third of workers are members of the creative class, just 11 percent of adults 25 and over have a graduate or professional degree.

But where exactly are these super-brains located?

To get at this, my Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) colleague Karen King used data from the 2011-2013 American Community Survey to identify the geography of the extremely highly educated across all 381 U.S. metros. MPI’s Isabel Ritchie made the maps, and we separated out the results for large metros with over one million people.

Washington, D.C., tops this list of large metros with 23 percent of residents holding an advanced or professional degree. Following closely behind are San Jose, Boston, San Francisco, and Hartford. Baltimore (home to Johns Hopkins), New York City, Raleigh in the North Carolina Research Triangle, Denver, and Rochester round out the top ten.

Large Metro Share of Graduate/Professional Degrees
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria 23.0%
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara 20.7%
Boston-Cambridge-Newton 19.3%
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward 17.8%
Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford 16.1%
Baltimore-Columbia-Towson 15.8%
New York-Newark-Jersey City 15.2%
Raleigh 14.8%
Denver-Aurora-Lakewood 14.1%
Rochester 14.0%

When you factor in medium and small metros too, Ithaca comes in first, with nearly 30 percent (28.9 percent) of adults holding a graduate or professional degree. Next in line is Boulder (27.2 percent), followed by Ann Arbor, Michigan (26.5 percent); Corvallis, Oregon (23.2 percent); and Lawrence, Kansas (23.1 percent). Needless to say all of these are college towns.

Mapping brains by subject

What happens when we look at individual types of brainpower? The knowledge economy, after all, is distinguished by the clustering of leading industries like finance in New York, high-tech in the Bay Area, film and entertainment in Los Angeles, and so on.

To get at this, King used Census data to chart the concentration of people who hold different types of graduate or professional degrees such as engineering, computer science and math, business and management, or social sciences and the arts.

Let’s start with engineering, the key to tech- and knowledge-based industries.

Large Metro Share of Engineering Degrees
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara 23.4%
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land 13.1%
Detroit-Warren-Dearborn 12.6%
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue 10.7%
San Diego-Carlsbad 10.7%
Raleigh 10.5%
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward 10.1%
Austin-Round Rock 10.0%
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim 9.4%
Boston-Cambridge-Newton 9.2%

San Jose tops the list for large metros. Next in line is Houston, with its extensive capacity in energy. Detroit, perhaps surprisingly, is third—although this ranking can be attributed to its extensive cluster of high-tech automotive, engineering, research, and design capabilities. The rest of the top ten reads like a who’s who of leading tech hubs: Seattle, San Diego, Raleigh, San Francisco, Austin, Los Angeles, and Boston.

When it comes to metros of all sizes, San Jose is still at the top, but Columbus, Indiana, comes in second (with 21.6 percent of adults holding graduate or professional engineering degrees); California-Lexington Park, Maryland, is third (17.3 percent); Huntsville, Alabama, is fourth (16.8 percent); and Kennewick-Richland, Washington, is fifth (15.8 percent).

Next let’s look at computer science, math, and statistics—fields which, if anything, are even more central to tech industries than engineering. When it comes to running and building companies and launching entrepreneurial startups, business and management skills are key.

Large Metro Share of Computer Science/Math/Statistics Degrees
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara 10.2%
Raleigh 6.7%
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria 6.5%
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue 6.2%
Baltimore-Columbia-Towson 6.1%
Austin-Round Rock 6.0%
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward 5.9%
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell 5.5%
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington 5.4%
Denver-Aurora-Lakewood 5.0%

San Jose again tops the list of large metros (as well as the list of all metros), with ten percent of adults holding graduate or professional degrees in computer science or math. Among large metros, Raleigh, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Baltimore, Austin, San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas, and Denver round out the top ten.

Among all metros, Bloomington, Illinois (7.4 percent); Huntsville, Alabama (7.2 percent); and California-Lexington Park, Maryland (6.6 percent) rank highly.

Now let’s take a look at the share of business degrees.

Large Metro Share of Business Degrees
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington 27.0%
Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia 26.8%
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell 26.8%
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach 26.2%
Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford 25.9%
Memphis 25.7%
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise 25.5%
Birmingham-Hoover 25.4%
Jacksonville 24.7%
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater 24.7%

The results here are quite different. The large metros with the highest concentrations of professional and graduate degrees in business and management are Dallas, Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, Memphis, and Las Vegas. For all metros, the list includes places like Laredo, Texas (29.5 percent); Hinesville, Georgia (27.5 percent); The Villages, Florida (27.1 percent); and Warner Robbins, Georgia (27 percent).

What about fields outside of tech and business? There’s still a case to be made that a well-rounded social science education can be an advantage in an era that places a premium on technology. Next in line among large metros are San Francisco, Sacramento, Boston, and Los Angeles, followed by Portland, New York, Seattle, San Diego, and Richmond.*

Among all metros, state capitals like Tallahassee, Florida (12.8 percent); Carson City, Nevada (12.3 percent); Trenton, New Jersey (10.7 percent); Olympia, Washington (10 percent); and Honolulu, Hawaii (10 percent) also rank highly.

Large Metro Share of Social Science Degrees
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria 14.4%
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward 11.9%
Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade 10.6%
Boston-Cambridge-Newton 10.2%
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim 10.2%
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro 10.0%
New York-Newark-Jersey City 9.8%
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue 9.7%
San Diego-Carlsbad 9.6%
Richmond 9.6%

Next let’s consider a graduate degree in literature or languages. The top ten largest metros on this metric are highly educated ones like Boston, San Francisco, Portland, New York, and Washington, D.C. When it comes to all metros, Pittsfield, Massachusetts (9.1 percent); Santa Fe, New Mexico (9 percent); Ithaca, New York (8.8 percent); Kingston, New York (8.4 percent), and Charlottesville, Virginia (8.3 percent) top the list.

Last but not least we turn to visual and performing arts.

Large Metro Share of Visual and Performing Arts Degrees
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim 7.6%
New York-Newark-Jersey City 6.3%
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward 5.9%
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro 5.3%
Providence-Warwick 5.2%
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue 4.8%
Austin-Round Rock 4.8%
Boston-Cambridge-Newton 4.6%
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin 4.6%
Salt Lake City 4.3%

Not surprisingly, L.A. tops the list of large metros, followed by New York—both of which have far and away the nation’s largest arts and entertainment industries. San Francisco is third, followed by Portland, Oregon, and Providence, Rhode Island. Seattle, Austin, Boston, Chicago, and Salt Lake City round out the top ten, besting metros like Nashville, Miami, Orlando, and Las Vegas, all of which have large entertainment industries but relatively fewer professional degrees. Among all metros, Santa Fe, New Mexico (10.5 percent) leads the pack, followed by Kingston, New York (9.7 percent); Pittsfield, Massachusetts (6.9 percent); and Santa Cruz, California (6.4 percent), which all rank in the top five. Most of these are the same college towns that appear in the top ten list for literature and language degrees.

Characteristics of brainy cities

According to a correlation analysis by my MPI colleague Charlottta Mellander, the economic performance of metros is closely associated with their braininess. (Of course, correlation does not equal causation, but points only to associations between variables.) These findings are in line with a large number of studies that show a close association between various measures of knowledge, talent, or brainpower and the economic performance of metros.

To start with, brainy metros have higher levels of wealth and affluence. The share of adults with graduate or professional degrees is closely associated with economic output per capita (.47), income per capita (.65), and average wages (.62).

Brainy metros also have higher levels of innovation and high-tech industry. The share of adults with graduate or professional degrees is closely associated with the concentration of high-tech industry (.67) and the rate of innovation (.64, measured as patents per capita).

Many have noted the importance of the clustering of brainpower and talent. Brainier metros are denser on average (with a correlation of .41 to population-weighted density). These metros also tend to be happier and more liberal, with a correlation of .56 to overall happiness, and a positive association (.46) with the share of people who voted for Obama in 2012.

At the same time, braininess appears to be bound up with rising inequality and economic segregation. The share of adults with graduate and professional degrees is associated with both wage inequality (.56), income inequality (.31), and economic segregation (.45).

Brains are clearly the driving force behind the knowledge economy. Generally speaking, either large superstar cities like New York and San Francisco, or knowledge and tech hubs lead the pack in terms of graduate and professional degrees. But when we drill down to focus on specific fields, metros like Houston and Detroit rise to the top in engineering, while Dallas, Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, and Las Vegas exhibit high shares of business and management degrees. While these metros may lag in overall talent, they have the kind of specialized brainpower that can drive the type of growth and resilience seen in smaller knowledge clusters.

*CORRECTION: A sentence that incorrectly identified the state capital of New York has been removed from this story.

Top image: f11photo / Shutterstock.com

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