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Universities and Youth Magnets

The Wall Street Journal has a list of the next youth magnet cities. I hate ranking lists, even though I can't really can't disagree with the cities that popped up on this particular one.

Richard Florida weighs in with one variable that he believes attracts young people to certain cities.
Where older Americans see high-quality schools and safe streets as key, Gen Y understandably ranks the availability of outstanding colleges and universities higher. Many are likely to go back to graduate school and having great programs nearby is a big plus. When it comes to their overall community satisfaction, access to open space, being in an aesthetically beautiful city, and having access to vibrant nightlife are also quite important. Affordable housing, air, and water quality, and availability of religious institutions matter too but slightly less so.
Emphasis mine. I have issues with the idea that "great universities" drive young people to cities, both from an analytic angle and from an anecdotal angle. I don't think it's as understandably obvious as Florida suggests.

(from Wikipedia)

The Analytic Problem
In order to build a statistical model that accounts for the significance of universities as an independent variable, one of two things would have to happen. Either a) the "greatness" of universities must be put onto a measurable scale or b) "great universities" must be included as dummy variables, requiring that a subjective and arbitrary distinction be drawn between what is "great" and what is not.

In the first case, how do we know how much better any university is than another? How much better is Harvard than UMass? How much better is Stanford than UCLA? How do the best universities compare to the worst? You could use any of many available measures, like the US News rankings, but they are based on questionable methodologies, anyway. Any attempt to measure the quality of a university will be arbitrary in some way.

Further, what big city doesn't have at least one university? If you use "great universities" as a dummy variable, either every city would be coded as having one, or there would be a highly arbitrary cutoff determination as to whether or not a city has one. Does Cleveland have a great university because it has Case Western Reserve? Does Detroit not have a great university because it has only Wayne State and Detroit Mercy? Pittsburgh has Carnegie Mellon, but Cincinnati only has U of Cincinnati and Xavier. Where do you draw the line?

The Anecdotal Problem

When thinking about what cities I might want to move to after graduation, the universities in those cities has almost no impact on that thought process. If I were to go to Boston, I would definitely be close to some great universities. So what? I probably couldn't get into and pay for Harvard or MIT for grad school, even if I wanted to. Florida's explanation seems to presume that members of the creative class are so smart and so talented that they can go just about anywhere they want at a moment's notice.

A more likely explanation (and one that a friend of the blog proposed to me) is that universities attract certain kinds of amenities: specific kinds of stores, restaurants, bars, coffee shops and other hangouts. Those are things that would make me want to live in a particular city or neighborhood, but they really have little to do with the greatness of universities themselves. In that sense, any university that is sufficiently large and isn't a commuter school should effectively serve the purpose.

Lastly, the quality of a city's universities cannot change overnight. New universities do not spring out of the ground and rise to excellence in a matter of years. Some cities might be able to invest in their state schools or turn commuter schools into more campus-based environments, but unlike other things that cities can change to attract young people, they really can't do much of anything with the schools themselves.


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