A fountain surrounded by downtown buildings
Downtown Indianapolis, one of the cities benefiting from a rise in highly educated residents AJ Mast/AP

Data suggests that Rust Belt and Sunbelt cities are adding highly educated adults—but established knowledge and tech hubs continue to dominate on one important measure.

Much has been made of the “rise of the rest”—the notion that there’s a shift underway in the location of talent (as well as technology) from expensive coastal cities like New York and San Francisco to more affordable Rust Belt and Sunbelt metropolitan areas. But how true is it?

Karen King, my colleague at the Martin Prosperity Institute, and I took a dive into the most recent Census data on the geography of talent, looking at two key measures in American metros: the share of adults (25 years of age and older) with a bachelor’s degree and above, and the share with a graduate or professional degree. In addition to charting the levels of educational attainment across U.S. metros, we looked at two measures of change: the percent change in the shares of these groups, and the rate of change per 1,000 people.

We did this analysis for all 350-plus U.S. metros, but the tables below zero in on the largest, those with a million or more people. We tracked these statistics in the period 2012–2016, the most recent period for which Census data is available.

Some evidence of “the rest” rising

The first table below, which lists the top 10 large metros by their percent change in the share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, provides some support for the rise-of-the-rest narrative.

Portland tops the list, followed by Indianapolis and Kansas City. Pittsburgh takes ninth place, ahead of Seattle. Providence and Charlotte join San Jose and San Francisco. Conversely, the large metros with the lowest rate of change were Minneapolis–St. Paul (3.5 percent) and Cleveland (2.4 percent), far below the national rate of 7.5 percent. However, Washington, D.C. (3.9 percent) and New York and Austin (both 4.4 percent) also had relatively low rates of increase.

Metro Percent increase in adults with bachelor’s degree and higher, 2012–2016
Portland 12.2%
Indianapolis 10.3%
Kansas City 9.5%
San Jose 9.3%
San Diego 9.3%
Providence 9.0%
Charlotte 8.7%
San Francisco 8.4%
Pittsburgh 8.0%
Seattle 7.5%

The next table looks at the percentage increase in the share of adults with graduate or professional degrees. Even though the top metros change slightly, the pattern is similar, with a mix of established knowledge hubs and Rust Belt and Sunbelt places. Now, Orlando tops the list, followed by Portland and Seattle. Milwaukee, Providence, St. Louis, and Indianapolis join the Sunbelt metros of Atlanta and Houston, alongside San Francisco, to round out the top 10. Nationally, the rate of change in adults with a graduate or professional degree was 9.6 percent.

Metro Percent increase in adults with graduate or professional degree, 2012–2016
Orlando 17.2%
Portland 16.4%
Seattle 13.8%
Milwaukee 12.8%
Providence 12.2%
Atlanta 11.0%
San Francisco 10.8%
St. Louis 10.6%
Houston 10.6%
Indianapolis 10.5%

But it’s a different picture when we look at the change in highly educated people per 1,000 people. This measure considers the rate at which there is an increase or decrease in the number of highly educated people, while controlling for population size. The next table does this for adults with a bachelor’s degree and above.

On this measure, the list of metros reads more like a Who’s Who of tech hubs and superstar cities.

Austin jumps to first place, followed by San Jose, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle. For Austin, San Jose, and Portland, the rate of increase is roughly double the national average. (Nationally, the rate of increase in adults holding a bachelor’s and higher is 36.4 per 1,000 people.) Three Sunbelt metros also make the list: Charlotte, Nashville, and Atlanta.

On the flip side, Cleveland (8.6 per 1,000) and Detroit and Milwaukee (21 per 1,000) have the slowest rates of growth on this score, while Chicago (26.5 per 1,000) and Pittsburgh (27.5 per 1,000) also lag considerably.

Metro Change in adults with bachelor’s degree and higher, per 1,000 people, 2012–2016
Austin 82.1
San Jose 72.9
Portland 72.5
San Francisco 67.7
Seattle 61.9
Charlotte 59.5
Denver 59.3
Nashville 55.3
San Diego 52.5
Atlanta 51.5

The pattern is similar when we look at the change in graduate degrees per 1,000 people. Nationally, the rate of increase in adults with graduate or professional degrees is 16 per 1,000 people. Now Portland tops the list, followed by Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, D.C., and Austin, with rates that are almost double the national average. But three fast-growing Sunbelt metros make this list, too: Orlando, Atlanta, and Houston. On this measure, Pittsburgh has the lowest rate of increase (7.35 per 1,000), followed by Cleveland (7.4 per 1,000), rates that are roughly half the national average.

Metro Change in adults with graduate or professional degree, per 1,000 people, 2012–2016
Portland 32.5
Seattle 31.7
San Francisco 31.5
San Jose 31.1
Washington, D.C. 30.3
Austin 29.4
Orlando 26.6
Denver 25.6
Atlanta 24.0
Houston 23.3

Knowledge hubs continue their dominance

When we consider the highly educated as a share of total population, the pattern reverts to the expected. Whether on the score of bachelor’s degrees and above or graduate and professional degrees, established knowledge and tech centers rise to the top.

Across America, slightly more than 30 percent (31.2 percent) of adults hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Washington, D.C., the perennial lead, takes first spot here, with more than half of adults holding a bachelor’s degree or above. San Jose, San Francisco, Boston, Austin, Denver, Seattle, and New York all number among the top 10. The large metros with the lowest shares of bachelor’s holders are Riverside (21 percent) and Las Vegas (23.3 percent), with shares less than half of D.C.’s. Cleveland’s and Detroit’s shares are roughly 30 percent, while Pittsburgh’s and Nashville’s are about 34 percent, considerably behind the leading metros.

Metro Share of adults with a bachelor’s degree and higher, 2016
Washington, D.C. 50.2%
San Jose 50.1%
San Francisco 48.5%
Boston 46.9%
Austin 42.8%
Denver 42.5%
Seattle 42.0%
Minneapolis–St. Paul 40.6%
Baltimore 39.5%
New York 39.0%

The same basic pattern comes through again when we look at the share of adults with a graduate or professional degree or higher. Nationwide, the average is roughly 12 percent. D.C. again tops the list, with a quarter of its population holding a graduate degree. It’s followed by San Jose, Boston, and San Francisco, where roughly a fifth of the population holds an advanced or professional degree.

On the other side of the ledger, the large metros with the lowest shares, of less than 10 percent, are Riverside (7.5 percent), Las Vegas (7.6 percent), and San Antonio and Tampa (about 10 percent each). Interestingly, L.A.’s share is just 11.6 percent, lower than Cleveland and Detroit (both 12 percent) and Pittsburgh (13 percent).

Metro Share of adults with a graduate or professional degree, 2016
Washington, D.C. 25.0%
San Jose 22.5%
Boston 21.1%
San Francisco 19.8%
Baltimore 17.3%
New York 16.3%
Seattle 15.9%
Denver 15.6%
Austin 15.0%
Portland 14.8%

The good news is that a number of Rust Belt metros—such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Indianapolis—have seen significant growth in highly educated talent. Many, if not most, of these places are home to leading research universities, which drive that growth. And some Sunbelt metros, like Atlanta, Houston, and Charlotte, have seen substantial improvement, too.

But when we consider the overall share of highly educated people, the leading knowledge and tech hubs surge to the top of the list, and maintain a considerable lead. Despite some gains made by “the rest,” America’s leading knowledge hubs and superstar cities continue to dominate the competition for highly educated people that fuels economic growth.

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