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|
|7||Lafayette-West Lafayette, IN||40,276|
|9||Athens-Clarke County, GA||36,850|
|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%|
|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%|
|8||Iowa City, IA||50,745||51,303||558||1.10%|
|10||Lafayette-West Lafayette, IN||40,766||40,276||-490||-1.20%|
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|
|3||College Station-Bryan, TX||116.5|
|6||Lafayette-West Lafayette, IN||102.9|
|7||Iowa City, IA||101.5|
|9||Athens-Clarke County, GA||96.8|
|10||State College, PA||78.0|
And here is growth since 2010.
|Rank||College Town Metro||2010||2017||Total Change||Pct Change|
|2||College Station-Bryan, TX||101.7||116.5||14.8||14.55%|
|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%|
|9||State College, PA||74.4||78.0||3.6||4.84%|
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|
|2||State College, PA||60,266|
|3||Iowa City, IA||57,777|
|6||Lafayette-West Lafayette, IN||51,410|
|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.
It doesn’t shock me that the Indiana counties are relative laggards. Historically Indiana always has had a lower per-capita income, but it’s dropped like a rock the last 20 years. This article is from 2014 (noting the state had fallen from 27th to 38th among states in per capita income; last I can find it’s down to 39th).
Bloomington in comparison has always been behind, too, because it’s in a historically poorer part of the state, and its industrial economy has taken a huge hit.
The state of Indiana isn’t helping. It’s put in all sorts of policies designed to drive down pay (among other things) in hopes being a cheap place to operate will restart its manufacturing economy. Even in places that it’s worked, the pay is so low that while owners are benefiting, the people of the state aren’t. Meanwhile, the state legislature is more openly hostile to areas like Indianapolis and college towns that have the potential for high growth, so growth they’ve had in non-traditional (for Indiana) sectors has come despite it, not because of it. (Though I will give the state legislature credit for not trying to financially gut its higher education system, unlike, say, Wisconsin.)
As for Iowa City, my daughter goes to the University of Iowa, and you can definitely notice the growth and the relative wealth. It may not hurt that it’s only 20 miles from even larger Cedar Rapids — and 50 miles from the Quad Cities — which (and I’m guessing) could make Iowa City a hub for people who would work in either place but want the greater cultural offerings a university town can provide. However, what worries me is that the Iowa legislature is growing more hostile to higher education, and the current school president seems willing to play along.
Chris Barnett says
I’d piggyback on this comment regarding Fayetteville. It is less than 30 miles from Bentonville, and it may draw professional people who work for Walmart or its suppliers who are interested in the cultural offerings of a college town.
The increase in incomes in Tippecanoe County seems to parallel the expansion of Subaru as well as the Mitch Daniels era at Purdue (big push on commercializing Purdue discoveries and starting new companies based on them). Likewise, the drop in GDP in Bloomington and slow income growth there seem to parallel the demise of the GE refrigerator plant, but strangely doesn’t seem to account for the corresponding growth in Cook Pharma and medical devices.
Just out of curiosity, did you skip over Lincoln, NE because it is a bit bigger than your size frame here (280,000)? Same for Lansing/E. Lansing? What about Morgantown, WV, too small? (city 31K, county 96K)? Lawrence, KS (city 95K, county 119K) ?
Aaron M. Renn says
I am thinking about doing another post with a separate group of somewhat larger college towns:
Ann Arbor, MI
P Burgos says
Should Durham really be included with that group of college towns? I know that Durham-Chapel Hill is defined as a separate MSA from Raleigh, but they are both part of the same Combined Statistical Area which now has about 2 million residents, and is a metro that has the state government as one of its larges employers.
Though there are more (OU, WKU, Southern Miss, MTSU) in the Midwest and South, the mini-study’s list would be more descriptive by getting outside of those confines:
San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly)
Yolo, CA (UC Davis)
Tolland, CT (UConn)
Douglas, KS (UK)
Hampshire, MA (UMass, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, Hampshire)
Cortland & Tompkins, NY (SUNY Cortland and Cornell)
Whitman, WA & Latah, ID (WSU and U of Idaho)
… really the successful college towns less often even come to mind as college towns:
Utah County (BYU) — by no means all exurban growth from Salt Lake
Greene County (Missouri State, Drury, Evangel)
Lubbock County (Texas Tech)
My sense in terms of what may be driving these numbers is as follows:
– Proximity to the Northeast Corridor, which attracts high-quality students (who lack a good flagship state school), faculty, and garden variety transplants (e.g., State College and Charlottesville)
– Lifestyle amenities, whether climate/topography and/or urban environment (e.g., again Charlottesville, but also Iowa City and Columbia, MO). This would attract higher-end transplants, particularly retirees.
– Unusually high university endowments of the University: UVa with its private university-like alumni network and endowment, Texas A&M with the state’s Permanent University Fund (back by natural resources).
– High quality job base not directly affiliated with the university. You mentioned Wal-Mart/Bentonville near Fayetteville, AR. Iowa City is very near Cedar Rapids with agribusiness and Rockwell-Collins. Charlottesville has Northrup-Grumman Marine, JAG school, National Ground Intelligence Center, IIHS crash test facility, etc. What does Champaign have, and is it too far from other Central Illinois metros/job engines like State Farm, Caterpillar, ADM, etc? Why isn’t Bloomington/Lafayette more like Columbus, IN?
What’s specifically interesting about Charlottesville is that it has a very strong local economy despite its small metro size and proximity to much larger DC/Northern Virginia and Richmond. Other strong college towns seem to have a similar compelling non-campus-related value proposition regardless of distance to larger metros.
STEM school-anchored metros seem to suffer unless you have some special sauce like Texas A&M. For example I don’t see the Blacksburg, VA (Virginia Tech) metro show up here, despite it being a good school in a relatively prosperous state with a lot of Northern Virginia connections, and being adjacent to a larger/more diversified Roanoke metro.
Columbus, Ind., though it has plenty of factories, has been in the non-college main much more white-collar than Lafayette and Bloomington (plus, as famously shown by its architecture, had a big boost by support from its wealthy patrons). And the difference between Lafayette and Bloomington is that Lafayette still has a somewhat thriving industrial base (just drive along US 52 on the south end of town), whereas Bloomington’s has declined and has left a famous legacy of environmental degradation.
A not-minor thing, too, is that Bloomington has been a relatively inaccessible location compared with Lafayette and Columbus. There wasn’t a four-lane highway of any kind connecting Bloomington with anywhere until the early 1970s. The I-69 project connecting it with Evansville is done, but the part connecting the highway with Indianapolis has been all kind of a cluster.
Chris Barnett says
I think it’s fair to say NO other city is like Columbus, IN.
It had the headquarters of Cummins and Arvin through most of the 20th Century. When I lived there in the 60s, the population was about 25,000…what other remote city of 25,000 ever had two Fortune 500 HQs?
Chris Barnett says
Lafayette is the “town” (more blue collar) side of the river, across from Purdue. Major manufacturing is alive and well there: a major Caterpillar facility, the Subaru of Indiana Automotive factory where that company makes about 40% of its worldwide production, Alcoa’s major aerospace-aluminum factory, and GE’s new advanced jet engine facility. The last is definitely related to Purdue’s presence and I’d wager likewise with Alcoa.
I’m mystified by the low GDP per capita though. Given what’s made there, it seems like an anomaly.
Student incomes always skew college towns low?
Charlottesville is as high as it is because it is a blue blood town in the “hunt country” and all that Old Dominion nonsense*. Plus, it is only a couple of hours away from Babylon
* My grad degree is from UVA, so I am allowed to make fun of it!
Chris Barnett says
This is the era of administrative bloat in major colleges, especially the flagship B1G schools, and students aren’t often counted in the labor pool. Administrators and athletic staff are not poorly paid employees, and in Indiana, neither are public school teachers and administrators (here, local schools are typically the largest or second-largest employer in town). Tippecanoe County is also a regional medical magnet.
There just isn’t an obvious explanation, other than Indiana’s generally poor performance on wages. But again…the big job generators in Tippecanoe County are ones that pay above median wages.**
Obvious note to the non-midwestern reader: Indiana has two flagship schools, like Michigan and Texas. The historical “liberal arts” school is IU and the historical land grant/A&M school is Purdue. Each is about an hour away from Indianapolis and reasonably commutable from the Indy exurbs.
**Some people with jobs in West Lafayette and Bloomington may commute in because a spouse or partner works in Indy or its suburbs.
As I recall, that’s why Mike Davis lived in Indianapolis while he was coaching basketball at IU. As an aside, I wouldn’t be shocked if you found more Ball State professors living in Hamilton County (northern suburbs of Indianapolis) than the Muncie area.
Chris Barnett says
Especially true since BSU has a downtown Indy urban design “campus” (more of a “center”).
It is also not unheard of for Cummins people to live in the south suburbs or exurbs, especially if a spouse has a job in Indy. (I once commuted from midtown Indy to Columbus, and the current Cummins CEO lives in that same part of Indy.) “Outbound” commutes of 30-50 miles on the interstates are not horrible here.
What about a pleasant, diverse college town adjacent to a big city and well connected by transit: Evanston IL?
What of Norman, OK – it is ostensibly part of the OKC metropolitan area (separated by the City of Moore from OKC proper southern limit)? Or is it only close in relative distance – such as Ann Arbor? Tempe AZ might be in this category and a much closer equivalent to Evanston.
Chris Barnett says
Agree re Norman, and having professional football is a bonus. Kind of half-suburb and half college town, and very pleasant half the year.
Which of these college towns host a major hospital or medical campus? Iowa City does, which would certainly push up its income figures.