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Where the Smart People Live

Update: December 4, 2010
An article published by the Huffington Post and posted on Yahoo News reports that I find "7,000 degrees within 7,000 square miles" in the Bay Area. This is simply not true. As the post below shows, I find that the city of San Francisco has slightly more than 7,000 college degrees per each of its roughly 47 square miles.


Update: June 10, 2010

If you arrived here via a link or news story that claims that this is a ranking of cities "from smartest to dumbest" please see my follow-up post. These headlines are misleading, incorrect and jump to unfair conclusions about my analysis. In no way do I endorse the conclusion that having a low degree density makes a city "dumb".


Original Post: March 23, 2010
It's becoming increasingly accepted that there is real economic value to bringing a lot of smart and entrepreneurial people together in the same place. This can be tough to measure, unfortunately. Perhaps best proxy we have available is educational attainment - usually measured as the number of people in a particular place with bachelor's degrees or higher, as reported by the Census Bureau.

I have seen this done in two ways. The first approach reports the proportion of college degree holders in a particular city. Usually, college towns like Austin, Texas and other stereotypically "brainy cities" like San Francisco and Seattle do well. The second approach looks at the raw number of people with bachelor's degrees in a particular city. Using this approach, big cities usually do the best, as they should. New York City has a huge population, of course many of its residents will have college degrees.

Both of these approaches have flaws. The theory that there is economic value to having smart people together rests on the assumption that smart people collaborate with each other. You could have a whole bunch of smart people in one place, but if they don't interact with each other, what's the value?

That's why I propose we start using educational attainment density, measured as college degree holders per square mile. I went ahead and collected and analyzed the data; and I've broken the results down into four sections.

Part One: Clusters of Smart People

I started compiling the data when I discovered a problem: there is no reliable report on the land area of metropolitan areas. It could be pieced together using the OMB's definitions of metropolitan areas, but that would have taken forever, and I simply don't have the time to invest.

Instead, I compiled the data at two geographic levels: first at the city level and second at the "urban county" level. I realize that comparing these geographies is not always entirely fair. That's why I'm giving away the spreadsheet with all of my work to anyone who wants to build upon this analysis (download it here).

I picked these cities by looking at the 50 largest metro areas by population and pulling what I deemed to be the "primary city" from each. In two metro areas, the Twin Cities and Bay Area, I pulled two "primary cities".

At the city-level, college degree density breaks down like this:

(click to enlarge)

And at the county-level, it looks like this:

(click to enlarge)

Note: New York City is excluded from the county-level analysis because I had a really difficult time determining its urban county components.

Now, you can look at these graphs and say, "this merely reflects the overall population density in these cities" and you would be on to something...

Part Two: Predicting Degree Density

If we regress degree density on population density we estimate a positive and statistically significant correlation result. At the city-level:

(click to enlarge)

And at the county-level:

(click to enlarge)

An interesting extension is to use a residual analysis to see which places have a higher or lower degree density than the population density predicts.

Part Three: Who's Doing Better or Worse Than Expected

First, at the city-level:

(click to enlarge)

Essentially, what this means is that Nashville has more than twice as many degree-holders as its overall population density would predict. Detroit has less than half as many as its population density would predict. And Columbus and Cincinnati have about as many as we would expect.

Again, at the county-level:

(click to enlarge)

Part Four: Degree Sprawl
Of the cities and county pairs analyzed, population density is always higher (or the same) in the central city than in the urban county. However, in several cases, degree density is higher in the urban county than in the central city. These cities include:
  • Louisville (113 fewer degrees per square mile in the city)
  • Cleveland (108 fewer degrees...)
  • Oklahoma City (26 fewer degrees )
  • Jacksonville (13 fewer degrees...)
  • Nashville (19 fewer degrees...)
  • Indianapolis (7 fewer degrees...)
This data suggests some level of "degree sprawl" in these cities, where college degree holders and sprawling out into the suburbs rather than staying in the central city. While further research would be helpful, this preliminary result is particularly worrisome if you believe that metro areas need strong central cities and strong central cities need a lot of smart people.


The Urbanophile said…
Interesting stats. One curiosity: Indy and Louisville are both city-county consolidations with excluded municpalities. In Louisville's case, these are mostly upscale (and thus likely more degreed) enclaves in the East End favored quarter. Indy is an interesting once since you saying the city is 11% above prediction but the county is 20% below it, yet that the county has more than the city.
John Morris said…
Hmm, have to mull these over, but I'm really dumb with numbers and highly suspicious of the strange classification issues and endless interacting variables involved.

I have to admit that this my attraction to both Jane Jacobs and Austrian economics is that both focus on general rules of human nature and bottom up systemic thinking than top down number crunching. (although it has it's role)

I guess to start with one should ask--Are college degrees really a great measurement of intelligence? Up until, perhaps 10 years ago 40% or 50% of Forbes's richest Americans had no degrees .Only one of the original Microsoft founders has one, Michael Dell doesn't have one although we know both companies were founded by elite college students But even more common are the Sam Lefrak(Real Estate Developer), Wayne Huizenga (Republic Waste, Blockbuster Video) Ray Kroc (McDonald's) Estee Lauder or even JR Simplot (Potato Kingpin, Early investor in Micron Technology) type rags to riches stories. In The earlier Carnegie era, degrees were even more rare. The primary education was on the job training.

Even less, are they a measurement of entrepreneurship? How does one control for a city like Pittsburgh,(Boston is about the same) where there are about ten significant colleges in or very close to the city or D.C. in which Federal jobs and government lobbying plays such a huge role.

Even so, without a doubt there is some kind of relationship here.

My guess is that some level of real density in at least one major area of each city, plays a huge role in creating trade and entrepreneurial germination and raising capital. How critical was the city of San Francisco in the birth of Silicon Valley?

Sadly at this point in the cycle--there just is so little job or new business formation happening. The central watering holes of government cash are State Capitals and College towns, so it shouldn't surprise one how relatively well they are doing.

A huge subject. I somewhat skimmed this post and have to look at it more.
Anonymous said…
Great work. Also, with no natural boundaries to speak of there is no reason for density in Marion County. In fact if the MSA, which includes Carmel, was used it would likely show further degree sprawl.

Marion County is misspelled in all of the charts.
Anonymous said…
This is a small and parochial quibble, but I note that you don't include Middlesex County, MA --- which is where Cambridge is, and therefore Harvard, MIT and much of the RTE 128 biotech belt. I'd be curious to see where it fits.
John Morris said…
Not sure how to handle NYC, but it really can't be just left out.

It's a pretty simple situation--each borough is in fact a separate county. Then I guess one has to try to go by zip codes-- which I know is a lot of work.

I guess the main thing this points out just how difficult, misleading and innacurate lots of our top down data is.

Is it any wonder, most businesses are started by local people with deep knowledge or why chains are always trying to gather zip code and personal info on their customers.

I know lots of neighborhoods in NYC, in which the entire ethnic makeup of a neighborhood would shift between census readings and in any area with lots of immigrants or non legal sublets, good luck with any accuracy.

One pretty good indicator of education/brain density is geo-maps of blogs.
Anonymous said…
This is a very interesting preliminary analysis. I think further development would be profitable. For starters, I would try to normalize both axes for your regression analyses--a log transformation might work. Secondly, I would assess residuals by something like a z-score, rather than percentages based on raw numbers. In addition, you might try regressing associated variables onto these metrics to see what they can explain. Nice work. -Jeff
Anonymous said…
I second the use of logs for the axes in the scatterplots - it would make the "point clouds" much more interpretable.

Second, would it make sense to try to control for overall population density when looking at density of college graduates? If the proportion of college graduates were constant from city to city, college graduates/square mile would still be very high for very dense cities like SF or NYC anyway. So you might try to separate out these two concerns.

Interesting and would love to see more.
dan_shays said…
Interesting work to say the least. It would be interesting to look at some of the affluent suburban counties of the urban centers. I like your breakdown and thought process. We can have philosophical arguments about what 'smart' is, or how intelligence can be quantified. If we use prime motivations, income (per capita) is the end-game of 'intelligent' quntification, and the top of the 'bottom-up' synthesis.

However, we can make a few assumptions and understand that the citizens of Nashville probobly have a high quality of life. They can understand each other better and establish deeper communal ties on the shared path to civic enlightenment, and social understanding at-large.

As far as 'Urbanophile's comment, questioning the validity of college degrees being a fair representation of intelligence, I believe they are. All degreed individuals had to think critically, rationally, and maybe even librrally at one time or another. Their thoughts were frequently adjudicated, and the process was than repeated any number of times, with evolving results.

Entrepreneurship, or being a Barron of Industry, does not necessarily require a wide scope of thought or intelligence. Motivation, collaboration, and general strong work ethos are what facilitate a few good men, the chance to bring a few good ideas to materialization.

It seems to me that "bottom-up" thinkers in general, are more concerned with their own academic consistancy than with processing the flow of information. Just an observation.
Anonymous said…
Here's another variable -- mobility. I'm in Chicago, and the fairly robust heavy and commuter rail network means that downtown benefits economically from the sprawled degrees (though that benefit has deteriorated over the past 3 decades as the far flung suburbs have helped starve the core of the transit system).
dennis wilen said…
Philadelphia -- the City and the County -- are contiguous.
thewildhare said…
Rob, fascinating work. We have just found your analysis and it has sparked conversation and interesting thougts. Are you planning to take it any further? We may do some complimentary analysis as well; however, I think that despite the challenge of getting all parameters appropriately included, there is definitely value in the high level conclusions. Thanks for sharing.
Anonymous said…
I'm from New Orleans and am trying to interpret the results. The city and the parish are the same thing. That is to say the size of Orleans parish is the size of The City of New Orleans and vice versa. Also, there is no separation between city and parish government. That being said, I don't understand the difference in the data between the city and county charts. Can anybody shed light? Thanks.
Noel said…
This is an interesting start. I live and work in downtown Chicago and sure, everyone has a degree. However, I find little creativity, entrepreneurship, etc. here. I've lived in Boston as well and find the exclusion of Middlesex county (Cambridge, MIT, Route 128) to be problematic. Similarly with Indianapolis, the story is not just Marion County. I have family living in Hamilton County on the Northeast side of Indy, and it's very common to find groups of software developers working in coffee shops with their laptops in that area. I've never seen that in downtown Chicago.
David said…
Seconding previous comments-

Of the six "degree-sprawl" areas listed, four are consolidated city-counties. Only Cleveland and OKC remain on the list as non-merged city-counties.

Even more than that, though: each of those four are consolidated city-counties, but with some remaining independent municipalities [as opposed to coterminously merged city-counties like Philadelphia, Denver, or San Francisco]. In each of these mergers, the excluded municipalities tend to have higher incomes than the county as a whole. Their appearance on the degree sprawl list, as a result, is not entirely surprising. The definition of a "city" in these cases is artificially exaggerated, which means that the degree sprawl is perhaps less pronounced than the numbers show.

On a somewhat related note: I'd be curious to see if there is any correlation between degree density and walkable cities (the sort of analysis performed here:
Jak said…
Thought provoking for sure. I am assuming this is where people live, not where they work. When you think about the supposed synergies of smart people, do they do it more at work or at home? Or is it about where they can easily change jobs to comparable work?

It would be really interesting to see the commute patterns layered over this. Also it would be great to see if income levels correlate. Are there differences by types of degrees and levels of degrees?
Anonymous said…
Your measures are about college educated people, not necessarily smart people.
lisaware said…
Finally a clear graph of why SF is more fun! Thanks for the great demographics!
Anonymous said…
I am curious about the Multnomah, OR entry. Portland didn't make the city list (understandable, it isn't a huge city), but if you really want to take a metro area into account, Portland Metro is actually three counties: Multnomah, Washington (which includes Beaverton and Hilsboro, where many Intel employees live), and Clackamas (just south, where there are more companies and housing).

I am sure there are other areas in your chart that have similar make-ups. That should be accounted for.
Anonymous said…
The Triangle region of North Carolina also suffers from how the city was chosen (it has several urban concentrations, hence the triangle).

This list using different criteria placed it higher than SF.
Anonymous said…
Comments on the comments: While degreed doesn't mean smarter, degreed people have more wealth generating capability in economic terms because they have better access to capital and other wealth-generating tools by virtue of their degreed status, so that in large numbers their presence indicates a wealth-positive environment.

Looking at the reverse of the assumed causality: I wonder whether the statistical distributions you show are more indicative of existing or previous success attracting degreed people, i.e. universities and technology-based industries require degreed people as workers, and so concentrate the same. Likewise, an existing concentration of any sort of wealth is likely to attract degreed people.

Two ideas from the above: what would happen if you ran your density numbers against average per-capita income. Also, what if you plotted economic output for the area divided by degreed people ($/degree) over time, would economic development lead, lag , be in-phase or perhaps even show no time-correlation of economic activity vs. numbers of degreed people. I do not know how far back your data stream goes, but using census data would force a longer-term view of any time-based relationship.

Just some thoughts.
Kurt Cagle said…
Another factor to consider in your analysis: Typically, because of the relative cost of large amounts of contiguous space necessary to build campuses (both academic and the industrial office-park variety) it is far more likely that these facilities would be located in the suburban umbra than within cities proper, especially given the bias towards degree as a measure of intelligence.

There are other factors too. While not as true at the Bachelor's level as at may used to have been, graduate and post-graduate degrees bespeaks a certain degree of financial affluence - you have to have a certain income in order to devote the time and energy towards what amounts to immediately non-productive activities. This changes later, of course, but nonetheless it's very likely that advanced degree holders will tend in general to gravitate towards academic or research oriented work, which implies that they are much more likely to be located in general proximity to the campuses.
M. Todd said…
I am extremely interested in looking at a heat map of the data for each city... where in NYC, SF, et al are the human capital clumped up within each of their cities?
M. Todd said…
I also want to echo John Morris' notes on human capital requiring degrees; I have no degree but am part of the human capital of Atlanta, and I am not alone.

I understand that basing the analysis on degrees is significantly easier to determine and calculate, but it should be noted and underscored that there is a large contribution to the actual human capital that is ignored by not taking this into account.
ben said…
NYC's boroughs are treated as counties:

Manhattan = New York
Brooklyn = Kings
Queens = ""
Bronx = ""
Staten Island = Richmond
Anonymous said…
I live in the south bay/san jose region of the Bay Area and have a masters degree. I think the purpose of the analysis makes sense but the methodology is entirely flawed.

Density is not what stimulates aggressive economic production.

It's "what % of the population in a given area are college grads/post-college grads." The natural density of humans in an area is irrelevant. It's given that there are X people living somewhere, how intelligent are they.

If you do that analysis, I think you'll find that SF Bay Area, NYC, Wash DC, Boston all rise to the top.
Clif said…
While this is an interesting exercise in data depiction, it's very risky to draw the conclusion that degree possession means anything more than degree possession. What I would love to see is a breakdown of that assumption to determine if it is true and, allied with that - the assumption that a degree indicates valuable things that are obtained educationally rather than simply a certificate of time spent to be shown to employers as a piece of paper. The networking/contacts established through attending higher level schools doesn't indicate "smartness" and what does "smartness" in itself mean - IQ?

We all know there are many degree mills and that there are plenty of people with advanced degrees who make you wonder how on earth they got them, especially if you are involved in the field associated with their degree. In short, there are so many factors involved that holding a degree can mean nothing without knowing the particular individual. So great caution is advised.
Anonymous said…
Why group San Francisco and San Mateo together in the county analysis? Those are two separate counties.
lgblog said…
I need to second some of the comments here already; there is problem in your data- your "city" data may include the federally defined "metro" area of the city. As previously mentioned- Louisville, Cincinnati, and Atlanta all have merged city/county governments; metro data, specifically used at the federal level, includes a much larger swath of area- in Louisville, for example, it includes New Albany, IN, surrounding counties (Oldham) and as far east as Frankfort.
lgblog said…
i meant Louisville, Indianapolis and Atlanta; not Cincinnati.
Dan E said…
I agree with the two commenters who note that you miss a huge bit of data on smart people by excluding Cambridge, MA (or Cambridge/Somerville) and Middlesex County.

The Boston area is particularly difficult to look at from a county-perspective, because the town of Brookline is certainly part of the Boston's inner core of suburbs (as well as a place where a lot of smart people live), but is actually an exclave a third county (Norfolk County).

One easy change you might nmake is just pulling Cambridge as a second "primary city" for the Boston area, as it is Boston's largest suburb.
Anonymous said…
Odd, no New Jersey. 50% of the population are college educated in the most densely populated state in the union.

This is an interesting exercise but incomplete.

Borsch Bingaz said…
You might want to redo this with a log-link GLM using the Poisson family if you're going to play with regressions. Also, you're going to have a lot of autocorrelation in your data set regressing two density factors against each other.

Since the city data are collapsed onto the entire city, degree density is simply a scalar multiple of the population density. A less coarse analysis, perhaps by zipcodes, within the cities, would actually yield a set of education density results which would have meaning beyond that of a simple scalar multiplication, as one could then plot educated areas of the cities and extrapolate citywide statistics that are more than just a multiplicand.

This is a great start though. You seem to have a passion for playing with information.. have you considered statistics as a further course of study?
Anonymous said…
If you are going to exclude Oklahoma City as an "outlier" (544%)on your predicted degree density chart then you should exclude it from all of the charts- or at least include an explanation. Oklahoma City is by far the most rural of any of the cities looked at. In the 1990 census, Oklahoma City was #197 out of 200 in population density. I doubt this has changed much. Vast undeveloped acreages inhabit much of city limits. The urban area within the city limits is small. I know it was not your intention to make OKC look bad but I think you should either show OKC on all of the charts or none.
Thank you for the interesting analysis. I understand that you had limited time, however it concerns me that you chose to only review the top 50 largest metropolitan areas. Perhaps there are smaller cities or areas that have higher densities. Cities such as Lawrence, KS or Tucson, AZ (or even the separately incorporated "suburb" of Tucson called Oro Valley, which is apparently thick with graduate degrees). Not everyone wants to live or start a business in one of the largest metropolitan areas.

Could you possibly provide links to the exact tables you used from the Census Bureau so that we could perhaps calculate the figures for any of the smaller areas we may be interested in? Essentially, a full citations page. That would be great.
Ted said…
Interesting, but there are also two flaws in this approach. First, educated people do not need to collaborate in space for their education to create positive externalities for each other. There are inherent advantages of specialization and productivity associated with a richer urban labor market. Secondly, to the extent that collaboration is meaningful, there is no necessary connection between density and interaction.
Alex said…
Thanks for the fascinating read. I'd want to know how much Manhattan (New York County) is off the charts, as we know it is the densest and one of the wealthiest in the nation.
Anonymous said…
Fulton county in GA can't really be considered to the Atlanta Urban area. You're missing at least DeKalb County, which part of Atlanta extends into. And the "metro" area is quite larger, encompassing at least 6 counties. GA counties are quite small.
Anonymous said…
I do wish people would stop confusing "smart" ith "educated". They are not necessarily the same thing at all. I have known very many smart people who had almost no formal education but they could figure out important things that improved their lives and those of their family. I have known, unfortunately, a great many people with Master's degrees and more who couldn't think their way out of the proverbial paper bag. We idealize formal education far too much and belittle those without it to our detriment as a nation. The east and west coasts are particularly prone to think that they are the founts of all wisdom. That's not so either.
Katie said…
On questioning the use of education as a smartness metric: It's not a question of whether every smart person has a degree, because obviously that's false. It's about whether having a degree (which is something we can measure) is a better indicator of smartness than the other metrics we have available to us. If you weren't using the number of degree-d people in an area to measure smartness, what would you use? Annual salary? Number of published works? High school GPA? A survey of the opinions of their neighbors? All of these are either difficult to obtain on a national scale (so the data set doesn't exist), or leave out more smart people than the "degree?" metric does. It may still be a crappy metric, but it's the best we've got.
Dan T. said…
Lots of folks here have commented on the exclusion of Cambridge and Brookline -- at a minimum -- from the Boston data. As an exercise, I calculated them (using my best guess at the particular census data used here). Interestingly, Cambridge alone handily beats San Francisco, with a degree density of 7593.

With Cambridge and Brookline included, Boston increases to 4410 from 3871.
metousiosis said…
I took it a step further to determine the percent of the population with a degree per square mile.
Charisse Andrea said…
I didn't read everyone's comment but I agree with "John Morris", for one. "Educated" does not equate to "intelligence". An educated person is 1) LUCKY to have had access to education and the opportunity (read: money) to take advantage of it, and 2) likely to have more KNOWLEDGE, perhaps, than a lesser-educated person, but not more CAPACITY to learn. Many of the "smartest" cities are big cities with many colleges to choose from, and most have affluent suburbs. To assume that a college grad has more CAPACITY TO LEARN than someone from the back woods of who-knows-where is not very smart at all.
Anonymous said…
Calculate the number of bachelor's degrees + / sq mile for Manhattan on its own and I think it shows this is a kind of useless metric. Manhattan (New York County): 26,722 degrees (bachelors+) / sq mile
Dustin said…
Very interesting, but you are assuming that everyone that has a college degree is a "smart person".

Great post...just disagree with that broad assumption.
David and Nancy said…
There seems to be a correlation between bike commuting rates and degree density. Of course, higher development densities are conducive to cycling. Have you looked into this?
Thomas said…
Wow. This was extremely informative and I really liked your template choice. And Marion is misspelled in the charts. Just an observation.
Erin said…
Just a thought - what exactly did you include as the Detroit metro area? Wayne County hardly captures it, given the proximity of Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties (which then include the University of Michigan and Oakland University). With the extreme movement of population out of the city and into the suburbs in all directions, this would probably be more telling. And it'll be interesting to see where Detroit ranks in 20 years, if its renaissance happens according to current trends.
Fishers Adam said…
Do degrees really determine intelligence though? I mean some of the smartest people in school that I know are also some of the ones with the least common sense.
mike seebinger said…
I am happy to see Minneapolis ranks high. I work both the rental and purchase side of the residential condo market and would say having strong companies in the area like Target Corp., Ameriprise, Best Buy, 3M, General Mills ect. feed us with good talent downtown. I cant speak for their intelligence in all cases but education, yes. Very interesting. Thank you.
latanya said…
Interesting statistics but I am completely disagree with graduates are "smart and entrepreneurial people". Specially entrepreneur skills don't have to do anything with degrees.
JR said…
I believe a college degree is not a determination of intelligence, but the benefits of education can enhance and set a fire the individual intellect each one posesses. feeding this hunger for a particular interest or God given desire can enable the most rural bred people to great and unusual things. i must be somewhere in the middle on the hicksville scale since I reside in DFW. I do not buy into the preclusion that the degree level is a measure of one's intelligence, yet the depth of one's heart is an accurate measure of their spirit. Many a people have overcome the odds because of their spirit... chart that......
ranjit said…
Basically degreed people are more believed to be economically generating rather than those without any formal degree. The term “smart people” does it means formally educated folk here, if it is not than I believe that smart and degreed people are different. Talking about the density of degreed people who are supposed to be more productive are seem to be more fascinated to work at metropolitan cities, where larger interaction and trade programs are commuted to raise the capitals. Interaction with different natives can bring in to larger social networking thus people are becoming smart to build and raise their economical strata.
Rubi said…
The analysis in this blog reveals that nearby to the colleges and universities most of the cluster of smarter people out of the entire density of the population lives in. The chart shows that cities like San Francisco, New York, Boston and Washington has large college degree holders as compared with the smaller cities like Oklahoma, Jacksonville, Birmingham has. The basic idea is that the geographical area can’t be extend but interaction and progressive thinking towards the nation can bridge up widen gap between the urban and rural cities.
camela said…
I personally seek my Graduation degree at the city of San Francisco where I had been for more than three years, people at these place are quite smart and seem sound to technical skills where as very few people at my native place do lack such skills.So overall I believe that graduated people are more smarter in terms of developing skills.

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