Friday, April 20, 2018

Ranking Smaller College Towns

I recently revisited Bloomington, Indiana (home of Indiana University, my alma mater) and Charlottesville, VA (home of the University of Virginia). They got me thinking about college towns, so I pulled some data for various of them in this size class.  These are communities roughly in the 125,000-250,000 population range that are home to major flagship (or similar) universities.

I have 11 on my list. For this size class of community, I believe the best unit of analysis is the county. These are metro areas and can have outlying counties. But those counties are typically rural (as opposed to the urbanized suburban counties of major metros). In my view they skew more than illuminate the data. So I use county where feasible. Some data is only available at the metro level. And because Virginia’s cities are all independent cities, I combined Charlottesville with Albemarle County where possible.

With that, let’s dig in.


Here’s a list of my college town counties sorted by population.

Rank College Town County 2017
1 Washington County, AR (Fayetteville – University of Arkansas) 231,996
2 Brazos County, TX (College Station – Texas A&M) 222,830
3 Champaign County, IL (University of Illinois) 209,399
4 Tuscaloosa County, AL (University of Alabama) 207,811
5 Tippecanoe County, IN (West Lafayette – Purdue University) 190,587
6 Boone County, MO (Columbia – University of Missouri) 178,271
7 Centre County, PA (State College – Penn State University) 162,660
8 Charlottesville-Albemarle County, VA (University of Virginia) 155,721
9 Johnson County, IA (Iowa City – University of Iowa) 149,210
10 Monroe County, IN (Bloomington – Indiana University) 146,986
11 Clarke County, GA (Athens – University of Georgia) 127,064

Here’s how those places fared in terms of population growth since 2010.

Rank College Town County 2010 2017 Total Change Pct Change
1 Brazos County, TX 195,662 222,830 27,168 13.89%
2 Washington County, AR 203,970 231,996 28,026 13.74%
3 Johnson County, IA 131,293 149,210 17,917 13.65%
4 Tippecanoe County, IN 173,045 190,587 17,542 10.14%
5 Boone County, MO 163,168 178,271 15,103 9.26%
6 Charlottesville-Albemarle County, VA 142,703 155,721 13,018 9.12%
7 Clarke County, GA 117,481 127,064 9,583 8.16%
8 Tuscaloosa County, AL 194,993 207,811 12,818 6.57%
9 Monroe County, IN 138,511 146,986 8,475 6.12%
10 Centre County, PA 154,280 162,660 8,380 5.43%
11 Champaign County, IL 201,541 209,399 7,858 3.90%

Texas is killing it, of course. Fayetteville I don’t know much about, but it’s close to Bentonville (home of Wal-Mart), so may be drawing off that. Iowa City is growing at a Sunbelt rate, and we’ll see that it looks good on some other stats as well. Illinois is a shrinking state, and even a quality college town like Champaign is growing at a low rate.

Gross Domestic Product

Here are the college town MSAs sorted by real per capita GDP.

Rank College Town Metros 2016
1 Iowa City, IA 51,303
2 State College, PA 49,309
3 Charlottesville, VA 48,418
4 Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO 45,627
5 Columbia, MO 44,391
6 Champaign-Urbana, IL 44,352
7 Lafayette-West Lafayette, IN 40,276
8 Tuscaloosa, AL 40,046
9 Athens-Clarke County, GA 36,850
10 Bloomington, IN 36,193
11 College Station-Bryan, TX 33,730

Again we see Iowa City doing great. Also State College. Champaign and West Lafayette, despite high quality STEM programs, aren’t especially impressive. Bloomington not looking so good.

Here is how real GDP per capita has changed since 2010.

Rank College Town Metro 2010 2016 Total Change Pct Change
1 State College, PA 42,112 49,309 7,197 17.09%
2 Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO 39,100 45,627 6,527 16.69%
3 Columbia, MO 41,782 44,391 2,609 6.24%
4 Charlottesville, VA 45,986 48,418 2,432 5.29%
5 Athens-Clarke County, GA 35,027 36,850 1,823 5.20%
6 College Station-Bryan, TX 33,207 33,730 523 1.57%
7 Champaign-Urbana, IL 43,834 44,352 518 1.18%
8 Iowa City, IA 50,745 51,303 558 1.10%
9 Tuscaloosa, AL 40,005 40,046 41 0.10%
10 Lafayette-West Lafayette, IN 40,766 40,276 -490 -1.20%
11 Bloomington, IN 39,335 36,193 -3,142 -7.99%

Yikes. Bloomington, which I take a special interest in since I went to school there, is dropping like a stone. That’s double-plus-ungood. West Lafayette also lost ground economically. This should be deeply concerning inside the Hoosier State.

Iowa City is not so strong here, but is starting off a high base. State College also started on a higher base but is killing it. Fayetteville is also looking good.


My county level jobs data is out of date, so I used the metro series. Here’s the ranking by metro, which no surprise roughly follows population. The values are in thousands of jobs.

Rank College Town Metro 2017
1 Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO 253.5
2 Charlottesville, VA 117.0
3 College Station-Bryan, TX 116.5
4 Champaign-Urbana, IL 110.2
5 Tuscaloosa, AL 107.6
6 Lafayette-West Lafayette, IN 102.9
7 Iowa City, IA 101.5
8 Columbia, MO 99.4
9 Athens-Clarke County, GA 96.8
10 State College, PA 78.0
11 Bloomington, IN 76.0

And here is growth since 2010.

Rank College Town Metro 2010 2017 Total Change Pct Change
1 Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO 200.3 253.5 53.2 26.56%
2 College Station-Bryan, TX 101.7 116.5 14.8 14.55%
3 Charlottesville, VA 102.9 117.0 14.1 13.70%
4 Lafayette-West Lafayette, IN 91.2 102.9 11.7 12.83%
5 Athens-Clarke County, GA 85.8 96.8 11.0 12.82%
6 Iowa City, IA 90.2 101.5 11.3 12.53%
7 Tuscaloosa, AL 96.5 107.6 11.1 11.50%
8 Columbia, MO 89.5 99.4 9.9 11.06%
9 State College, PA 74.4 78.0 3.6 4.84%
10 Champaign-Urbana, IL 107.6 110.2 2.6 2.42%
11 Bloomington, IN 74.4 76.0 1.6 2.15%

It’s another poor showing for Bloomington. Champaign is also not looking so hot. Fayetteville is rocking.


Here are the college towns ranked by median household income. I used MSA here to grab Charlottesville.

Rank College Town Metro 2016
1 Charlottesville, VA 62,523
2 State College, PA 60,266
3 Iowa City, IA 57,777
4 Columbia, MO 52,752
5 Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO 51,848
6 Lafayette-West Lafayette, IN 51,410
7 Champaign-Urbana, IL 50,564
8 Tuscaloosa, AL 46,086
9 Bloomington, IN 43,693
10 Athens-Clarke County, GA 43,165
11 College Station-Bryan, TX 42,233

My observation of Charlottesville was that it was a posh town. I’m not surprised to see it so high on the list. State College and Iowa City again doing well, but Bloomington again doing poorly. Again, the top tech oriented schools in Champaign and West Lafayette aren’t that impressive.

For the change, I’m switching to county and dropping C’ville off the list. (MSA data isn’t available for 2010 because of metro redefinitions. I could use per capita income but my database needs updated for that). Note that unlike GDP per capita, these numbers are not inflation adjusted. The percentage number in brackets is the percent of the US average.

Rank College Town County 2010 2016 Total Change Pct Change
1 Tippecanoe County, IN 37,983 (75.9%) 51,361 (89.1%) 13,378 35.22%
2 Centre County, PA 44,746 (89.4%) 60,266 (104.6%) 15,520 34.68%
3 Boone County, MO 41,006 (81.9%) 52,752 (91.6%) 11,746 28.64%
4 Monroe County, IN 36,392 (72.7%) 43,582 (75.6%) 7,190 19.76%
5 Washington County, AR 38,278 (76.5%) 45,679 (79.3%) 7,401 19.33%
6 Johnson County, IA 49,226 (98.4%) 58,064 (100.8%) 8,838 17.95%
7 Brazos County, TX 35,407 (70.7%) 41,559 (72.1%) 6,152 17.38%
8 Champaign County, IL 45,254 (90.4%) 50,335 (87.4%) 5,081 11.23%
9 Tuscaloosa County, AL 43,450 (86.8%) 47,787 (82.9%) 4,337 9.98%
10 Clarke County, GA 34,230 (68.4%) 34,999 (60.7%) 769 2.25%

Here West Lafayette shines. They had substantial growth and went from 76% to 89% of the US average. Pretty good. State College is again doing well. Athens not so hot.

These are the numbers, with a minimum of analysis. I’m sure that commenters will have much more to say.

from Aaron M. Renn

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ten Infrastructure Projects We Should Actually Build

I have argued that the primary infrastructure need in the US is for maintenance, not new builds or expansion. But clearly building nothing new isn’t realistic, so what projects should we build and why?

I just released a new Manhattan Institute issue brief highlighting some criteria for when new infrastructure can be justified, along with a list of 10 specific projects that make sense. I include transit, freight rail, highways, airports, and energy on the list.

My criteria:

  • where the existing infrastructure is at or over capacity and is experiencing a significant historical (not just projected) growth in demand, in a region that is growing overall; (this last bit is to rule out sprawl subsidizing roads in regions that are stagnant);
  • where infrastructure is obsolete or nearing the end of its useful life; where the original networks did not envision the current distribution of demand, such as highway links between cities that used to be very small but now are very large; and
  • where the project costs can be recovered from user fees such as tolls.

And my project list:

Passenger Rail

1. Gateway Project (New York City and New Jersey)

2. North–South Rail Link (Boston)

Freight Rail

3. Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program (includes passenger rail benefits)


4. I-11 link between Phoenix and Las Vegas

5. I-35 Capitol Express project (Austin)

6. SR 37 freeway improvement (Indianapolis)

7. I-345 freeway removal (Dallas)


8. Kansas City International Airport terminal improvement

9. Denver International Airport expansion


10. New England gas pipeline

Click through to read the whole thing.

from Aaron M. Renn

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Fate of Small Towns

Robin Johnson of the Heartland Politics radio show in Burlington, Iowa invited me on to discuss the fate of rural and small town America. We chatted about improvements in rural physical quality of life, declining social conditions, which places are best positioned for the future, and a bit about Hillbilly Elegy. I’m including the audio as a podcast. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Subscribe to podcast via iTunes | Soundcloud.

from Aaron M. Renn

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Master Curve

I’m going to be writing a bit about institutions, but before doing so want to introduce a concept that’s widely applicable and underlies a lot of our discussions about cities and many other things. This is the maturity curve, shown here in the form of a product life cycle diagram.

This curve starts off with a slow growing incubation phase, followed an accelerating growth phase (sometimes labeled hyper-growth), followed by a flattening at maturity and finally decline.

This is true of products (think the iPod). It’s also true of companies. Think about a retailer that gets hot and becomes a juggernaut as it opens tons of stores. Then it either saturates its market or loses its shine and falls by the wayside. It also applies to the growth of physical organisms, like us.

And it applies to social constructs like institutions and cities. Right now cities like Dallas and Nashville are hot. Detroit and Cleveland has struggled. The former are in their growth phase while the latter in maturity (or even decline). The real measure of a city is how it responds at maturity. Great cities like London, Paris, and New York have reinvented themselves across cycles, finding a way to re-create another growth phase. Detroit and Cleveland haven’t yet done that, though are trying. The real question about places like Dallas or Houston is what will happen when their growth phase ends and they have to face maturity. Will they be able to restart the cycle or successfully manage at a mature entity? Time will tell.

For people, we all die eventually. That’s the human condition. So while there are challenges from an aging population, older people don’t stay around forever as zombies. So humanity is constantly refreshing itself. With cities and institutions, however, old ones don’t necessarily go away as we create new ones. They linger for a long time and face many challenges. How then should we respond to this situation? This is something we need to ponder.

from Aaron M. Renn

Monday, April 16, 2018

London Murder Level Surges

Photo Credit: Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0

All my life we’ve assumed that US cities have vastly more violent crime than those in other developed countries. But things are changing as crime rises in places you never would have thought.

London, previously famous for its unarmed bobbies, has seen 50 murders so far this year. It only had 116 all last year. London has seen more murders than New York City in the last two months, which is stunning.

New York is, of course, vastly safer than it used to be. But London is seeing a surge in crime.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has been a darling of the urbanist media, but he’s failing in his first duty of public safety. By contrast, you have to give Bill de Blasio credit for keeping violent crime in NYC low, especially during the last several years when a number of US cities saw crime spike.

This may prove to be a short term phenomenon. Let’s hope so. But it’s certainly time for Khan to step it up and demonstrate leadership on this critical issue.

from Aaron M. Renn

Friday, April 13, 2018

Journalists Don’t Like Being on the Receiving End of Disruption

Photo Credit: Yassie, CC BY-SA 4.0

About 10-15 years ago, at a time when pharma stocks were in the tank and there were a lot of pipeline problems, I remember thinking that some enterprising investor might step up and do a leveraged buyout of one of these companies, sell off the pipeline, eliminate R&D completely, slash and burn the corporate office, and run the business off for cash as a purely sales and manufacturing operation.

Nobody ever did that, but it has happened in other industries. One of them is the newspaper business. Enterprising investors have figured out that they can buy these papers on the cheap, sell off the real estate, gut the newsroom, and just milk the business for cash until the inevitable end game. As an example of how this works, tronc CEO Michael Ferro had the newspapers he owned pay his firm a huge consulting fee ($5 million per year) equivalent to 60-70 reporters salaries. In essence, he was gutting the newspaper simply to send cash upstream to his company (and presumably himself).

Journalists hate this, understandably.

Another example comes out of Denver, where reporters are protesting the hedge fund that owns the Denver Post.

Since Digital First Media took over the papers, the union’s membership, which includes reporters, photographers and other employees, has declined by about 70 percent, Mr. Ross said. The Daily Times, which once had 125 union members, now has just 25. The Trentonian has 20.

Of those who remain, many work under demoralizing conditions, he added. The Trentonian’s building, Mr. Ross said, had no hot water for so long that the union filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Rats scamper about. Employees at the Norristown paper no longer have a building of their own and must work either from Pottstown’s offices or out of their homes.

Despite Mr. Ross’s belief that Alden Global Capital would consider an offer, it is not clear how willing the company is to sell any of its papers. The hedge fund generally buys publications at a low price — it recently bought The Boston Herald for roughly $12 million — with the goal of extracting as much profit as it can, for as long as it can. A sale might provide a quick infusion of cash, but it would deprive Alden Global Capital of future returns.

This is the reality of private equity finance that few libertarian types want to acknowledge. It’s often more personally profitable for funds to deliberately gut a declining business and manage it for cash than to try to fix it. These specific firms are devouring our economy and communities, not doing a positive service. (As Dan Rasmussen pointed out, as a rule all private hedge funds actually do anyway is load up corporate balance sheets with debt).

I happen to agree that a strong local paper is important to a community. I’ve written on the importance of the decline of local media many times.

But as I listen to these hurt, outraged reporters talk about what is being done to them, I again can’t help but notice how little sympathy they’ve shown for workers in other industries that have suffered restructuring. Are they willing to do anything to help America’s manufacturing industries or workers? They are more likely to say get used to it – the jobs are never coming back. Or how often do they reject Silicon Valley disruption (or even that coming from firms in their hometown) when it affects businesses other than their own? How many journalists in thriving cities are really worried in their guts about the fate of struggling post-industrial places?

The truth is that like much of manufacturing, the newspaper business is dying because of technical innovation, except for the handful of most prestigious national outlets like the New York Times. There’s no bringing back the glory days. Does that mean journalists should give up and go take retraining classes?

I for one am glad they are fighting. I don’t want to see newspapers go away. I think they are important to local communities. But they aren’t more important than the other industries that were lost. I hope in trying to fight back against the social media giant and hedge funds that are devouring their own industry, these reporters will take a broader look around at what has been done to many others – and maybe gain some newfound sympathy for those in other industries on the receiving end of similar trends.

from Aaron M. Renn

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Social Capital Index

New from Sen. Mike Lee’s Social Capital Project is a new report that attempts to measure levels of social capital by state and county. They construct a multivariate index including things like family structure, volunteering, census response rates, etc.

Here’s a map of social capital by state:

It should come as no surprise the Utah is #1 and Minnesota is #2.

Here’s an index of social capital by county:

You’ve probably seen maps that look similar to this before. That’s because social capital, like many other things, varies by race. So in part this study is another piece of evidence for racial gaps. The general race gap is actually the meta-problem that, if it could be reduced, would magically make a huge number of other items look better.

Click over to read the whole report.

from Aaron M. Renn