Ranking Larger College Towns

Photo Credit: ensign_beedrill CC BY-SA 2.0

A few weeks ago I took a look at smaller college towns. Today I’ll present some data about larger ones. This list is a bit more challenging in some respects. For one thing, because these are larger cities (relative to the previous list at a minimum), are they really “college towns”? Madison is the state capital of Wisconsin, for example. The university is important to be sure, but doesn’t dominate the city to quite the extent that say the University of Illinois does Champaign-Urbana. In any event, I’m presenting this with very limited analysis.


Here’s my new list, sorted by total metro area population.

Rank Metro Area 2017
1 Knoxville, TN (University of Tennessee) 877,104
2 Madison, WI (University of Wisconsin) 654,230
3 Durham-Chapel Hill, NC (Duke, University of North Carolina) 567,428
4 Lexington-Fayette, KY (University of Kentucky) 512,650
5 Lansing-East Lansing, MI (Michigan State University) 477,656
6 Eugene, OR (University of Oregon) 374,748
7 Ann Arbor, MI (University of Michigan) 367,627
8 Lincoln, NE (University of Nebraska) 331,519
9 Boulder, CO (University of Colorado) 322,514
10 Gainesville, FL (University of Florida) 284,687

Knoxville is so big that I have my doubts as to whether it should be on the list. By contrast, in retrospect Gainesville may also have been a better fit for my previous list. (Also, I don’t claim this list is exhaustive. It’s just a sampling for blog purposes)

Here is where they rank on population change.

Rank Metro Area 2010 2017 Total Change Pct Change
1 Durham-Chapel Hill, NC 508,532 567,428 58,896 11.58%
2 Lincoln, NE 302,980 331,519 28,539 9.42%
3 Boulder, CO 295,930 322,514 26,584 8.98%
4 Lexington-Fayette, KY 473,306 512,650 39,344 8.31%
5 Madison, WI 606,578 654,230 47,652 7.86%
6 Gainesville, FL 264,607 284,687 20,080 7.59%
7 Eugene, OR 351,880 374,748 22,868 6.50%
8 Ann Arbor, MI 345,515 367,627 22,112 6.40%
9 Knoxville, TN 838,748 877,104 38,356 4.57%
10 Lansing-East Lansing, MI 464,189 477,656 13,467 2.90%

This is mostly in line with what I would have thought, though Lincoln is perhaps a bit higher up than most people would have guessed.

Gross Domestic Product

Here is a ranking by real GDP per capita.

Rank Metro Area 2016
1 Durham-Chapel Hill, NC 68,586
2 Boulder, CO 67,265
3 Madison, WI 64,767
4 Ann Arbor, MI 53,489
5 Lincoln, NE 51,013
6 Lexington-Fayette, KY 50,528
7 Lansing-East Lansing, MI 40,781
8 Knoxville, TN 40,548
9 Gainesville, FL 39,102
10 Eugene, OR 36,536

There is quite a dramatic disparity between communities on this metric.

Here they are ranked by change in real GDP since 2010.

Rank Metro Area 2010 2016 Total Change Pct Change
1 Madison, WI 59,248 64,767 5,519 9.32%
2 Eugene, OR 33,678 36,536 2,858 8.49%
3 Knoxville, TN 38,193 40,548 2,355 6.17%
4 Lexington-Fayette, KY 47,786 50,528 2,742 5.74%
5 Lincoln, NE 48,361 51,013 2,652 5.48%
6 Boulder, CO 64,097 67,265 3,168 4.94%
7 Lansing-East Lansing, MI 41,224 40,781 -443 -1.07%
8 Gainesville, FL 39,800 39,102 -698 -1.75%
9 Ann Arbor, MI 55,773 53,489 -2,284 -4.10%
10 Durham-Chapel Hill, NC 78,768 68,586 -10,182 -12.93%

It’s very interesting to see so many of these cities with declining per capita GDP, especially places conventionally touted as doing well such as Durham and Ann Arbor. The difference in performance between Madison and Ann Arbor (often bracketed together in comments about Midwestern cities) is notable.


Again, we’ll start off by ranking by total jobs. Values in thousands.

Rank Metro Area 2017
1 Madison, WI 400.9
2 Knoxville, TN 395.8
3 Durham-Chapel Hill, NC 310.6
4 Lexington-Fayette, KY 278.4
5 Lansing-East Lansing, MI 235.1
6 Ann Arbor, MI 220.2
7 Boulder, CO 188.8
8 Lincoln, NE 188.3
9 Eugene, OR 159.0
10 Gainesville, FL 142.2

And next job growth since 2010.

Rank Metro Area 2010 2017 Total Change Pct Change
1 Boulder, CO 159.2 188.8 29.6 18.59%
2 Lexington-Fayette, KY 242.4 278.4 36.0 14.85%
3 Durham-Chapel Hill, NC 270.7 310.6 39.9 14.74%
4 Eugene, OR 141.4 159.0 17.6 12.45%
5 Gainesville, FL 126.7 142.2 15.5 12.23%
6 Ann Arbor, MI 196.3 220.2 23.9 12.18%
7 Madison, WI 359.4 400.9 41.5 11.55%
8 Knoxville, TN 358.2 395.8 37.6 10.50%
9 Lincoln, NE 172.2 188.3 16.1 9.35%
10 Lansing-East Lansing, MI 215.0 235.1 20.1 9.35%

My income database is slightly out of date, so I’m not going to include that figure for these communities.


from Aaron M. Renn


California’s Environmentalist-NIMBY Axis

Image via City Journal

California, which touts the most aggressive climate policies in the country, steadfastly refuses to do the one thing that would do the most for carbon emissions: permit new housing construction in green friendly areas. Instead, they pass policies like requiring solar panels on all new homes that simply jack the price of housing up even higher. This is the subject of my latest article over at City Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

The state’s rationale for imposing the solar directive is, of course, climate change. But as New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer tweeted, adding 10,000 new apartments in San Francisco would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in the state by three times as much as the solar-panel mandate because urban apartment-dwellers use less energy than single-home occupants. California is already a green-friendly state. Building more housing that lets more people live in California, even at current energy-efficiency levels, would have a positive effect on emissions. The alternative is forcing people to move out of state and into more polluting jurisdictions.

State legislators made an attempt to expand housing availability with Senate Bill 827, which would have preempted local zoning rules by requiring cities to allow midrise construction near rail stations and major bus stops. The legislation should have pleased climate-change activists by facilitating the construction of new transit-oriented development and increasing density. But powerful environmental groups in California, including the Sierra Club, lined up against the bill, which failed in committee.

Click through to read the whole thing.

from Aaron M. Renn

Rethinking Small Town Economic Development

A friend introduced me to downtown revitalization consultant David Milder, who sent me some of his thinking on economic development in small towns. I thought his idea for “small town entrepreneurship environments” was interesting, so I recorded a podcast with him on the subject. We talk about why many small towns can actually compete, why seeking to recruit manufacturing firms is likely a losing strategy, how to create an environment for “contingent entrepreneurs” the flourish, and quality of life improvement options.

You can download David’s white paper on STEEs here.

If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Subscribe to podcast via iTunes | Soundcloud.

Featured image photo credit: J. Stephen Conn, CC BY-NC 2.0

from Aaron M. Renn

The Big Ten’s National Footprint

Frequent commenter Frank the Tank, who is a guru about many aspects of universities and conferences, took the WSJ data I referenced two days ago and used it to create an extremely interesting analysis of the Big Ten. It’s highly recommended reading even if your interest is non-Big Ten schools.

Here Frank notes that the “big four” cities (as I’ve labeled them in other contexts) of NYC, DC, LA, and SF have a major Big Ten alumni presence:

There are only four markets in the entire country that drew more than 1% of the graduates from every single Big Ten school: New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco. None of these metro areas are located in the Midwest. Not even Chicago, the heart of the Big Ten, covered every single conference school, albeit the two sub-1% exceptions are the latest East Coast additions of Maryland and Rutgers.

To be sure, the Wall Street Journal notes that those four particular markets draw from a much wider range of colleges across the country. The sheer sizes of the New York and Los Angeles markets swallow up a lot of college grads and all four of the cities have strengths in industries that attract a national talent pool: finance in New York, entertainment in Los Angeles, tech in San Francisco, and government and politics in Washington.

The Big Ten’s top-to-bottom presence in those four markets is noteworthy because the only other Division I conference that has every member in those same markets is the Ivy League… and all of the Ivy League schools are in relatively close proximity to New York and Washington.

The Big Ten is the only conference with a truly national base of alumni, though the Ivy League is national where it counts:

The Wall Street Journal database shows that the Big Ten has the most nationalized alumni base of the Power Five conferences from top-to-bottom. As noted previously, the only other conference where every school has at least a Tier 3 connection with New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco is the Ivy League. More than half of the Big Ten has at least a Tier 3 connection with Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver and Seattle. There are 4 or more Big Ten schools with a Tier 3 connection with Houston, Miami and Phoenix, too.

Within the Midwest, Chicago is the dominant destination. But other than Chicago, no other Midwest city has a Big Ten draw outside of their home state universities.

Putting aside Maryland and Rutgers, Chicago is still the market with the deepest ties to the Big Ten by a large margin. It is a Tier 1 market for 6 schools, Tier 2 market for 2 schools and Tier 3 market for 4 schools. No other metro area has more than 2 Tier 1 Big Ten school connections. This isn’t exactly surprising with the annual migratory pattern of new Big Ten grads taking over apartments in Lincoln Park and Lakeview every summer (while the older Big Ten grads like me move on to places like Naperville). Big Ten schools also send a lot of grads to the largest metro areas within their own home states. Every Big Ten school has a Tier 1 connection to at least one market located in its home state.

What’s stunning to me, though, is the utter lack of Big Ten grads going anywhere else in the Midwest other than Chicago or a metro area that has a presence in their school’s state. Detroit is the 2nd largest metro area in the Midwest, relatively easy driving distance from most of the Big Ten schools, and larger than both the Seattle and Denver markets. Yet, the only 2 Big Ten schools outside of Michigan and Michigan State that have even a Tier 3 connection to Detroit are Northwestern and Purdue. Meanwhile, 10 Big Ten schools have a Tier 3 connection with Denver and 8 of the league’s colleges have a Tier 3 connection with Seattle.

If Midwestern metros want to have any chance of changing their slow growth compared to the rest of the country, it’s clear that they need to do a better job of attracting the college grads that are just beyond their own home state universities. There really isn’t a great reason why Indianapolis isn’t drawing at least 1% of grads from neighboring state Big Ten schools like Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State… and Indy is one of the healthier Midwestern economies. Essentially, the Midwest metros with the exception of Chicago have completely ceded their “home field advantage” for Big Ten grads to the coasts and other high growth locations (e.g. Dallas, Atlanta and Denver).

It has been fascinating to go through the grad destination profiles of the Big Ten schools along with other colleges across the country. Once again, in matters more important than conference realignment, Midwestern cities in particular need to review this data and understand that they are giving up their home field advantage of nearby Big Ten grad talent to coastal cities that are providing such talent with more professional and economic opportunities. This is sobering data for every Midwest city outside of Chicago. They likely knew that this challenge was happening at some level, but the results are actually even worse than expected.

Chicago not only has a strong Big Ten presence, as Frank notes, “Interestingly enough, all of the Ivy League schools have at least a Tier 3 presence in Chicago, too.” It’s weaker than the big four coastal cities, but it’s there.

There’s a ton of other information in Frank’s post, including about the implications of expansion and analysis of future Big Ten conference moves. Click through to read the whole thing.

from Aaron M. Renn

Chicago Parking Meter Lease Slow-Motion Train Wreck Only Has 65 More Years to Go

The Chicago parking meter lease is not just a bad deal that happened in the past. It’s an ongoing problem year after year. The Chicago Sun-Times just reported that the vendor’s annual revenues are now up to $134.2 million, meaning they will recoup the full amount they paid for the concession by 2021 – with 62 years left on the lease. The investors have already pocked $927 million. That doesn’t account for the time value of money, but even if you discount it back, this is looking like a good deal. (Just over the next decade, assuming revenues remain flat, that would equate to a discounted $384 million at a pretty high discount rate of 10%).

In more bad news, Emanuel had bragged that he’s significantly reduced the penalty payments that the city had to make to the vendor for closed parking spaces and the like. But that is now back up to $21.7 million per year.

In short, thecity:

  • Sold off rights to on-street parking revenues for 75 years for $1.1 billion, then promptly blew the money such as that residents have nothing to show for it.
  • Converted what used to be $23.8 million in annual revenues for the city and turned it into a $21.7 million expense – a $45.5 million per year swing in a city with serious financial problems.
  • Created barriers to repurposing on-street real estate for things other than parking, such as bus lanes, widened sidewalks, green space, etc.
  • Still has 65 more years to go


from Aaron M. Renn

Where College Grads Are Moving

The Wall Street Journal just ran an interesting interactive feature where college grads move after graduation. They looked at 445 schools, and tracked destinations by metro area. They discovered that graduates, particularly from stronger schools, are flocking to major metro areas. The Big East, Ivy League, Pac-12, Big-12, ACC, and Big Ten are all over 70% in sending college grads to major metro areas (but see below for caveats).

The Ivy League grads are even more concentrated. A quarter of all Ivy League grads live in New York, Washington, or San Francisco. Here’s the WSJ map of cities where more than 2% of Harvard grads go.

Relative to population, Washington, San Francisco, and Boston punch well above their weight. Washington comes in #2 to NYC in the number of schools sending more than 2% of their grads there.

Alas, the Journal selected an unfortunate definition of major metro. They define them as the top 55 metro areas, plus the largest metro in the state, plus the largest metro in any state without one in the top 55, excluding Alaska. I don’t know anyone else slicing data this way. A more typical method would be to look at metro areas with more than a million people, of which there are 53. There are some clear midsized and lower tier cities below that on the Journal’s list, so the midsize city advocates are also going to claim this data for themselves. I can understand why they would want to include every state, but this definition of major metro raises questions about analysis based on it. I would like to see a re-slice, or better yet another field in their interactive tool to allow readers to set threshold sizes.

I’m also not quite sure what the graphs for schools mean. They are labeled as “Percentage of alumni in each metro area.” The top bucket is greater than 50%, yet some schools (e.g., Wisconsin) have multiple cities in that category.

College vs. College

I played around with comparing colleges, particularly within the same state. If we look at Michigan and Michigan State for example, we see U of M’s stronger east coast links.

Looking at Indiana vs. Purdue, we see that Purdue has a bigger national footprint.

City Draws

I’ve mentioned before that Indianapolis and Columbus draw migrants overwhelmingly from within their own states. The college draw maps confirm this.

In fairness, every region in the 1-2 million range I looked at was a regional draw. Here’s Nashville.

The city data look like follow some kind of gravity model based on size and distance, so many of the maps look vaguely the same with different origin points. Nevertheless, it’s fun to look at. Check it out.


from Aaron M. Renn

Northern Ambition: Young and Foreign in the Twin Cities Circa 1987

[ When I wrote about there being social factors other than the cold keeping people from moving to Minneapolis, Sami Karam, a Lebanese immigrant who now lives in New York City and posts insightful demographic analysis as his site Populyst, mentioned that he’d had similar experiences trying to fit in there when he lived in Minneapolis in the 1980s. I asked him if he’d write up his experience, and he graciously agreed. While this story is about 30 years old, I believe it still holds relevance today. You can also follow Sami on twitter at @sami_karm – Aaron. ]

“For how much longer will you go by Sami instead of Sam or Samuel?… Because after a certain age, a Robby, for example, would revert to a more grown-up name like Bob or Rob or Robert”, I was once asked and informed by a man in Minneapolis. My answer that Sami is a real first name, albeit not necessarily one that I favored over its variants, did not seem to satisfy him.

A decade later, when I started working on Wall Street and heard a similar comment, I found that this reaction to ‘Sami’ was not unique to the midwest or to the less diverse non-coastal US but that it was instead emblematic of cultures that were somewhat insular. Minneapolis did feel insular when I lived there as a young immigrant in 1986-88.

When Aaron Renn recently suggested that I write about my experience there, I was not sure that I could do a fair job of it. Would I use a chronology, as in a fragment of biography? Would I showcase the 1987 Twins triumph at home in game 7 of the World Series? How would I insert my fast weekend escapes to New York or L.A. on discounted fares that I bought in bulk from People Express ($45 to New York)? And my slow other weekends spent alone writing computer code in the office because I had nothing better to do?

When undecided, use data! So in the end, I settled on five main data themes. Minneapolis in 1986 was 1) cold, 2) flat, 3) remote, 4) rich, and 5) very white. The first four are still true today.

But first a few general comments.

Minneapolis was (is) a great place in many ways. The people around me were unfailingly kind. I liked the city’s well-designed infrastructure and amenities and its perennial ambition to turn itself into something bigger and better. “It wants desperately to be New York”, a Minnesotan college friend had volunteered before I moved there.

But after living there for two years, I was dubious. I thought that Minneapolis, though known as the ‘Minneapple’, was very happy just being Minneapolis. Further, if I want to be lucid, these same unfailingly kind people did not seem all that interested in me. I was an oddity in a place that seemed perfectly content without too many oddities.

As to Minneapolis becoming bigger and better, the most visible of the city’s major improvements, for example Cesar Pelli’s stunning Norwest (now Wells Fargo) Center then under construction, seemed destined to remain off bounds for the likes of me. I projected, rightly or wrongly, that were I to stay, it would take me a very long time to penetrate the higher circles of local industry.

Norwest (now Wells Fargo) Center. Image via Wikipedia/Public Domain

On the whole, my time in Minneapolis was comfortable but not easy. Although I had already lived in many places away from home, I felt in this case an unfamiliar isolation that was heightened by the cold winters and by the city’s remote location deep into the northern plains.

Of little assistance to my outlook was the fact that I was reading, in the dead of winter, Roland Huntsford’s The Last Place on Earth, a chronicle of the 1911 two-team race to reach the South Pole. Would I sail through and emerge victorious like Amundsen? Or would I endure an exhausting slog only to then freeze to death like Scott? Neither, of course, though my February psychology was trending to Scott.


How bad is the weather in Minneapolis? Regarding the temperature, it is as cold as Anchorage in winter, but no worse than Chicago in spring, and similar to New York and Denver in the summer and fall. On the whole, I found it quite bearable, and even enjoyable, except for the most extreme days of winter.

There are other weather factors beside temperature. For one, Minneapolis enjoys an unusually high number of completely cloudless days. “It is too cold for the humidity to hold up in the air”, my recruiter had deadpanned during the first interview.

Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) has more clear days than Chicago and more total sunny hours than New York, and far more than Seattle. Its annual snowfall is similar to Denver’s but Denver is even sunnier. Surprisingly, Denver has more clear days than Miami and as many sunny hours.

So in sum, Minneapolis is abysmally cold and snowy in winter. But overall, it is frequently sunny even in winter. If you prefer sunny cold days to tepid wet grey ones, you could argue that the weather in Minneapolis is in fact better than in Seattle. The temperatures in Seattle are less extreme and there is little snow. But the sky is frequently overcast and releases rain in forty more days every year than in Minneapolis.


Minnesota has little variation in its land elevations and is the fifth flattest state in the US. Standing at any high point in the city, say on the tenth floor of a building, the view is unobstructed by natural topography in all directions. Except on hazy or foggy days, the towers of downtown are clearly visible from far away. In winter, the chill wind can do its work unbothered by natural obstacles and its steady sweep undulates drifts of snow from one side of the road to the other (‘snow snakes’, per one of my friends).

Lake Harriet in Winter by Amy Mingo. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

I once took a drive north to Duluth and pressed on along the north shore of Lake Superior. We encountered few hills until we reached the Sawtooth range of low mountains along the lake.


In my view, the most unique geographic feature of Minneapolis is not its weather, but the combination of its weather and its remoteness. It is very far from any other sizable city. Its own metro population has 3.6 million today, up from less than 2.5 million when I lived there. But the closest large city is Chicago, 409 miles away. That is the same distance as Boston to Baltimore, and 30 miles more than San Francisco to Los Angeles. Unlike on those trips however, there is little to break the monotony of a day-long trek through rural Wisconsin, except for a quick bypass of Madison and perhaps a lunch break at Wisconsin Dells.

On my first long drive to MSP, coming from Indiana, I was thrilled at dusk to finally reach Eau Claire because that meant that I only had… 90 miles to go to get to MSP.

Minneapolis is even more isolated to its west. Driving in that direction, the first city of over one million inhabitants is Seattle, 1,656 miles away. I never ventured in that direction. But I did head to Kansas City for New Year’s 1988. That was a mere 436 miles of driving through the frozen grey-brown fields of southern Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri. The city of Des Moines, helpfully located half way, was the only pretext to take a break.

The next large cities beyond Kansas City were Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth, both at over 900 miles from Minneapolis. But I never went there by road.

The brave that push northward from MSP into Canada will not encounter a sizable (say greater than 500,000) concentration of humans until Winnipeg in Manitoba, 460 miles away.

I wonder if MSP’s remoteness made it more insular back then. Today, people fly more easily and everything seems closer. But in 1986-88, I met some people in their 50s or 60s who had never left the state. In some cases, they were proud of it and intent on keeping it so until the end. There was no need to venture anywhere, other than for curiosity or a love of travel, especially when the local economy was doing so well.


Minneapolis-St Paul was quite content with its economy. Back then, it boasted higher median household income (MHI) than the US average. Today too, the MHI in Hennepin, Dakota, Ramsey, Anoka and Washington counties (the metro Minneapolis-St Paul area) is significantly higher than the national average, roughly in line with that of Manhattan.

Minnesota is home to corporate giants Cargill (agriculture, trading), Carlson (travel), United Health (health care), Target and Best Buy (retail) and others.

I saw first hand and was inspired by the Minnesota work ethic that seemed to strike just the right balance between personal ambition and team work. I was employed by an architecture-engineering design firm that had at the time its headquarters in Minneapolis and a small satellite office in Milwaukee. I had no doubt that it would grow smartly. Today it has eight offices coast to coast.


When I lived there, Minneapolis’ ethnic makeup was over 80% white. Today, this percentage has dropped to the mid 60s. I am guessing that the new diversity has changed the character of the city and opened up new cultural vistas.

Someone like me would probably find it easier to integrate today than I did in the late 1980s and may more readily decide to settle in Minnesota for the long term. To be sure, it is still brutally cold. It is also still very far, but it may feel closer today thanks to easier travel and social media. The locals are probably more interested in the foreign-born today because there are more of them around. And they bring with them something new and interesting.

My guess overall is that Minneapolis is a much better place for an outsider today than thirty years ago, though still not as socially navigable as the traditionally more universal cities on either coast. Nonetheless, as I alluded above about Wall Street, coastal America seems more inclusive overall but it still comprises smaller sub-cultures that can be just as exclusionary as some midwestern cities. The outer walls are gone but smaller inner citadels remain off limits.

In 1986, as a Mediterranean in the land of the Scandinavian and German-American, I sought warmer personal connections. As luck would have it, baseball rescued me in the end. When the Twins made it to the 1987 World Series, a groundswell of camaraderie and good cheer spread through my entourage, one that was broad and generous enough to see me invited to several homes where I watched the games and liberally high-fived everybody. There was no going back to formality after that.

Forever etched in my memory is a night drive into downtown on the last day of the World Series. Every window of every building was lit up in tribute to the Twins victory and the entire city was glowing like a celebratory thank you to the heavens.


from Aaron M. Renn