It's been almost three weeks since I posted my analysis of college degree density. And to say that the post has gone viral would not be untrue. That said, the way the data analysis has been reported has not always been entirely accurate or fair. Interpretations are being drawn that I never intended to be made.

This is a ranking list, but it's not the type of best/worst of list that I've criticized heavily in the past. Instead, this is merely a sorting of data, with few subjective interpretations.

Thus, to call San Francisco the "smartest" city in America or Jacksonville the "2nd dumbest" city is an extrapolation of my analysis -not my conclusion. If these headlines offended anyone, please understand that media, particularly local media, wants sensationalist headlines, and this seems to have been an easy way for some of them to get them. Nowhere in my original post do I ever call or imply that any of these cities are 'dumb'.

There are college grads that live in all of the cities in my analysis and there are high school dropouts in every one of those cities as well. What a city like San Francisco has that a city like Oklahoma City does not have is a lot of degree holders living in close proximity to each other. The reason this matters is because many economists and urban theorists now subscribe to the belief that 'human capital' drives economic growth, and that collaboration among entrepreneurial people is valuable. That doesn't mean a city with low degree density is 'dumb' - it means that it isn't well positioned to take advantage of economic growth that stems from human capital.

Indeed, a degree is not synonymous with intelligence. We all know someone who graduated from college and has zero common sense or knowledge of the world. Some of America's greatest entrepreneurs were drop-outs. Unfortunately, short of administering an IQ test or asking for the SAT scores of everyone in a given city, their educational attainment is the closest and most widely available proxy we have to measure this variable.

There are significant flaws to my analysis that I'm willing to acknowledge. Comparing geographies is inherently flawed because geographic boundaries are arbitrary. The city of San Fransisco, for example, is 46.7 square miles (excluding water), New York City is 305 square miles, and Jacksonville is 767 square miles. Is it fair to compare these cities to each other given these constraints? Not entirely.

The better approach would be to draw a circle of equal size around the central business district of each city and measure the degree and population density in that circle. This is difficult for two reasons. First, because my GIS skills are rudimentary and would require a great deal of my time. Second, because the data is too highly aggregated and we wouldn't be able to get a good sense of specific neighborhoods and blocks until the release of the 2010 Census.

People have been looking at this analysis and asking: Who are you? How are you qualified to make these comparisons? To which I say that I honestly don't think it matters who I am. I believe degree density is a simple analysis using publicly available Census data and that I was simply the first person to actually put it together. It doesn't matter if a PhD economist or a middle-school wiz-kid downloaded the tables and formatted the charts because, ultimately, they would come out the same in each case.

People in cities with low-degree density need not be offended by the result of this analysis or think of their cities as 'dumb'. This is a false dilemma. Many of the blogs and news stories about my analysis either ignore or don't understand the importance regression and residuals components (parts 2 and 3 of the original analysis). Because degree density and population density are very strongly correlated, the explanation for why a city has a high or low degree density will almost always be answered with the explanation that city has a high or low population density. Which brings me to my last point...

If society values degree density, and from the responses I've gotten, it sounds like many people do, then the simplest strategy for achieving higher degree density is to increase population density. But are cities and the people that live in them willing to take those steps? Are we willing to move past the suburbanization and sprawl that has ravaged American metro areas for the past several decades?

4 comments:

    On June 10, 2010 Anonymous said...

    First, I must say that as a college student living in Jacksonville, I could see why there is such a low amount of college degrees surrounding me. All too often, I find myself aggravated by the lack of intelligence I come in contact with. On the other hand, I understand that this is not what you were meaning to say nor is that what your research suggests. Now, I wouldn't find it surprising if you did additional research comparing the percentage of adults over the age of 22 with degrees (that age being the "norm" for when students graduate with their Bachelors) and the population (over age 22) of the cities. Not only do you not have the excuses of density of people, but also leaves out children or younger people that haven't had a chance to aquire one.
    On a side note, I asked a professor one year why the Jacksonville sheriff's office is the only police department in the state of Florida that requires a 4yr degree (an associates if there is prior military or police experience). He stated that "college graduates have a higher percentage rate of making better decisions." I just found that to be an interesting statement.

     
    On June 11, 2010 Daen said...

    If society values degree density, and from the responses I've gotten, it sounds like many people do, then the simplest strategy for achieving higher degree density is to increase population density.

    Surely an easier strategy to increase degree density is to educate more people to degree level, irrespective of population density? Increasing population density requires concomitant, expensive upgrading of infrastructure (housing, power, sewage, water, transport etc); educating people to a high level these days can be done over the internet.

     

    "Increasing population density requires concomitant, expensive upgrading of infrastructure (housing, power, sewage, water, transport etc); educating people to a high level these days can be done over the internet."

    Huh, and paying all the redundant costs of spreading people out doesn't cost anything?

    Here in Pittsburgh, we have a huge problem every winter plowing roads and providing emergency services to every tiny community perched on a steep hill or hollow. Lots of communities are upset they are losing their small hospitals as if towns a few thousand or less could possibly support the cost.Then they complain they can't support grocery stores. Do you have any idea what some places spend on school bus service?

    Another huge problem here is flash flooding from runnof which is happening at a rate that never happened before as more and more land is paved over.

    If you went to school, you flunked critical thinking.

    (By the way, sprawled out and rural areas have a hard time supporting high speed internet service)

     
    On July 21, 2010 Ryan said...

    "Surely an easier strategy to increase degree density is to educate more people to degree level, irrespective of population density? Increasing population density requires concomitant, expensive upgrading of infrastructure (housing, power, sewage, water, transport etc); educating people to a high level these days can be done over the internet."

    This isn't entirely correct. Yes, it would be nice to get every individual a degree. You however make a false assumption about expensive infrastructure. Using heating as an example, consider 20 houses separate from each other. They have more surface area than 20 houses in a single building. This is because they share common walls. This is also advantageous in other areas such as power, internet and transport. Structures with higher densities are simply more efficient on average. It's well proven and accepted within fields such as urban planning or environmental psychology.

    On another note, close proximities also grant more individuals wishing to attain a degree the ability. Attending a community college is easier if there is one close by. Attending a university is easier if living expenses are lower because one can live with a parent.