There are many aspects to consider for students who want to make a long-term commitment to their former college town. From housing affordability and household income to job openings and unemployment rates, these urban centers need to have it all. Bringing together the best of both worlds, college towns have to be great idea incubators, as well as provide fertile ground for those ideas to develop and benefit the community at large.
And, as research has shown, the benefits of a great university town do indeed extend beyond the youthful energy and myriad social opportunities a campus provides. In fact, the vibrant, on-campus life is underscored by the entire area’s focus on education, research and development — which can be translated into business opportunities, new jobs and economic growth. Educational institutions can strengthen local economies, making university towns the perfect choice not just for student life, but also for life after graduation.
So, to determine how dynamic, robust and sustainable college cities are as well as which would be best for life after college, we looked at the 100 most successful universities located in 86 cities and towns across the U.S. and ranked them based on 15 factors across four main dimensions: human capital, housing, economic activity and earning power & equity.
For a quick glimpse, check out the top 10 most dynamic American college towns:
While education and innovation keep these educational institutions on the map, it’s the economic and social conditions in the city that convince students to pursue a career and build a life in their college town. That’s why household incomes, home prices, the number of businesses and startups and even the city’s poverty rates weigh heavy.
And, while some cities and towns might shine in the human capital category — boasting great shares of people with a higher education and positive changes in their median age — other towns fare better when it comes to housing and earning power. Therefore, choosing their forever place might be a tough decision for many students who are preparing for their professional life.
4 Dimensions of Progress: A Snapshot
As previously mentioned, the 15 factors we examined were grouped into four individual dimensions that help envision the different facets of a city’s evolution: human capital, housing, economic activity, and earning power & equity. Take a look at the cities that saw the biggest improvements for each category.
America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic College Towns in Terms of Economic Activity
Keeping a finger on a college town’s economic activity means researching the number of successful businesses and the area’s unemployment rates — but also the number of jobs available and housing affordability. That’s because being able to find a job after college is just about as important as being confident that buying a home won’t be too far off in the future. And, although home price growth is a good indicator for a city’s increasing desirability, home price-to-income ratio is the more important metric.
America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic College Towns in Terms of Human Capital
Increase in population — coupled with a decrease in median age — is one of the best predictors of a community’s sustainability and growth. Specifically, the infusion of young people translates into new projects, pioneering research, and a growing number of startups and local businesses. As such, the “youngest” college towns on our list were Amherst, MA (home to the University of Massachusetts) and Storrs, CT (home to the University of Connecticut), both of which boasted a median age of 20.4.
Another telling factor for the sustained success of a college town is the share of people who have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s because increasing rates of educated people mean more students are choosing to either pursue a career in the city where they graduated or move to a college town from somewhere else. In that respect, St. Louis, MO (Washington University) saw the most significant rise in its share of educated people — a 35% increase compared to 2010. What’s more, five other cities also saw an increase of 30% or more in their shares of educated people: Philadelphia, PA (University of Pennsylvania); Cleveland, OH (Case Western Reserve University); Medford, MA (Tufts University); Pittsburgh, PA (University of Pittsburgh) and Williamsburg, VA (William & Mary).
America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic College Towns in Terms of Housing
An area that has enough housing goes a long way when thinking about your forever city. Undoubtedly, homeownership remains an ideal for many young people, so sufficient supply would win a city major points.
Irvine, CA (University of California); College Station, TX (Texas A&M University) and Malibu, CA (Pepperdine University) are the three college towns that have seen the largest increases in their total number of housing units in the last decade. And, although Princeton, NJ — home to Princeton University — comes in first, with a 164% jump in the number of homes built here, this increase is not organic: On January 1, 2013, the Borough of Princeton was added to the Princeton Township, leading to an artificial increase in population, as well as housing units.
America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic College Towns in Terms of Earning Power & Equity
A graduate’s starting salary in their city of choice matters a great deal. But, the earning power of everyone else in the city matters, too. Ideally, in the long run — and for the health and stability of the area — the pay gap should not become too large. Therefore, paying close attention to the local median household income is essential, but checking the evolution of the share of people living below the poverty line is an equally vital indicator.
For instance, cities where the household income is impressive — but the poverty rate is also growing — might indicate that many people are slowly pushed out of the city where they wanted to live. On the other hand, cities where incomes have been rising, but the poverty rate has been going in the opposite direction are among the most desirable urban centers.
As such, with a poverty rate as low as 4.3%, Newton, MA (Boston College) shines as one of the college cities with the rosiest futures. Eight more college towns also boast poverty rates less than 10%: Stony Brook/Brookhaven, NY (Stony Brook University); Santa Clara, CA (home to Santa Clara University); Coral Gables, FL (University of Miami); Malibu, CA (Pepperdine University); Princeton, NJ (Princeton University); Hoboken, NJ (Stevens Institute of Technology); Medford, MA (Tufts University) and Waltham, MA (Brandeis University).
Full Ranking: The Most Dynamic U.S. College Towns
The four categories that contribute to our ranking each comprise many social and economic factors that are vital for the professional and economic wellbeing of people, as well as their life satisfaction and continuous development. Specifically, the factors that we considered include:
- Human Capital: Increases in population and immigration levels (influx of U.S. citizens from other parts of the country as well as foreigners); the median age of residents in the city; and increases in the number of residents holding higher-education degrees.
- Housing: Increases in the total number of housing units; changes in the number of vacant homes; and the number of building permits per 1000 residents.
- Economic Activity: Changes in housing affordability, which is calculated by analyzing home price evolution and home price to income ratio; the most recent unemployment rates; the changes in number of local businesses; most recent number of available job openings; and the number of registered patents.
- Earning Power & Equity: Changes in household income in combination with the current share of people living below the poverty line.
The following ranking contains all 86 cities included in the analysis, along with their scores for the 15 factors we took into consideration. We assigned different values to each factor (check the Methodology section for details) and calculated the weighted average to obtain the final rank for each town.
Click on each factor in the table (“Population Growth,” “Rise in Movers from Outside the City,” “Median Age” etc.) to rank the cities according to that specific factor.
Clearly, universities are a true asset for both the towns and regions where they’re located, making college towns brim with both educational and business opportunities. As such, there’s no denying that the constant influx of students and young people is one of the main reasons these cities are such thriving communities.
Whether they’re from the area or coming to college from other cities and states, students are the engine behind the success of a university, as well as the city as a whole. Consequently, access to top-notch courses and research projects — coupled with the infusion of new and young people — create a positive feedback loop that keeps these cities and towns on an upward path.
- We selected 15 indicators covering four dimensions to gauge the level and speed of economic and social development in 86 U.S. college towns, home to the 100 most successful U.S. colleges and universities.
- The four categories we considered were Human Capital; Housing; Economic Activity; and Earning Power & Equity. To establish the final ranking, each of the 4 dimensions received an equal weight — 25%.
- Within the four dimensions, each factor received a value to reflect their importance:
- population changes (10%)
- median age (5%)
- changes in the number of people with college degrees (5%)
- changes in the foreign-born population and inter-city migration patterns (5%)
- change in the number of housing units (15%)
- change in the number of vacant housing units (5%)
- building permits (5%)
- evolution of household income (13%)
- current poverty rate (13%)
- home price growth (according to the National Association of Realtors, local MLSs, and PropertyShark stats and data) (5%)
- home price-to-income ratio (our calculations) (5%)
- unemployment rate (5%)
- changes in the number of local businesses and companies (5%)
- number of job openings (3%)
- number of registered patents (2%)
- The scores attributed to each factor were weighted to reflect their importance. We determined each city’s weighted average across the metrics and used the resulting scores to rank the cities in the analysis.
- Our main sources were: the United States Census Bureau; the Bureau of Labor Statistics; the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; the National Association of Realtors, local MLSs, and PropertyShark stats and data.
- We analyzed data at the city level for all metrics, except for the number of businesses and patents, for which we used metro-level data. Some home prices were also available only at the metro level.
- We selected the cities based on the top 100 most successful universities and their locations, as ranked by USNEWS Education.
Fair use and redistribution
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