Our commentators debate: Is Milwaukee badly behind other cities in the percent of college educated residents?
A note from Bruce Murphy: Two weeks ago I did a column, “Dumping On Milwaukee,” that, among other things, took a look at how Milwaukee stacks up compared to other cities in the percent of college educated residents. Not bad, I concluded. Milwaukee was ahead of about two-thirds of the top 100 metro areas, with 31.7 percent of residents college educated, but ranked slightly below the average of 32 percent for these cities (the average being jacked up by the top eight cities, where more than 40 percent of residents were college educated.)
That generated an interesting discussion from a couple readers who are very good data crunchers, and went much deeper into the issue than I did. First up was Nathaniel Holton, a lawyer and former contributor to The Milwaukee Drum, who noted that the New York Times data I quoted was from a study by the Brookings Institution, and suggested the metro area averages conceal differences between city and suburbs:
Brookings keeps updated demographic and socioeconomic data on metro areas as well as their cities and suburbs… The CITY of Milwaukee has an educational attainment of just 21.4%, ranking 76th out of 100, or ‘behind three-quarters of America’s cities.’ The metro area is boosted by the educational attainment of Milwaukee suburbs (37.3%, #9 of 100). Insofar as there’s a valid story of segregation in metro Milwaukee, you can stick segregation by educational attainment right up there, at least in terms of the city/suburb divide.
If you use this Brookings link, you can look at the college attainment by cities and by suburbs and compare them fairly easily. Out of 100 metros, only 49 had suburbs with educational attainment higher than that of the cities. The difference in Milwaukee (city: 21.4%, suburbs 37.3%, for a difference of 15.9 percentage points) is the 5th largest disparity out of the 100 metro areas, behind Hartford, Bridgeport, Detroit, and Cleveland. When it comes to socioeconomic data, the difference between city-level and metro-level is generally far higher for Milwaukee than for other metros. And this is exactly why it’s so important to be careful when discussing cities and metro areas in Milwaukee. They are not at all interchangeable, and Milwaukee is one of the metros where this is most true.
This brought a response from Steve Filmanowicz, my old colleague at Milwaukee Magazine, who later worked as an aide to Mayor John Norquist and now serves as Editorial Director at Marquette University. Filmanowicz points to Holton’s breakdown of the Milwaukee city and suburban rankings:
In two compact sentences, Nate begins revealing quite a lot, including a) just how outdated classic notions have grown of cities struggling in the shadows of their fortunate suburbs, and b) how much some classic struggling city-affluent suburb disparities nevertheless cling to Milwaukee.
To better understand the first point (and to some degree, the second), it’s worth considering how rarely metro areas in large swaths of this country — particularly the Sun Belt — fit the mold that still comes to mind around here: a big, old diverse city hemmed in by suburbs, many of them affluent and homogeneous. Whereas the city of Milwaukee has been locked at 91 square miles since the state legislature reined in its annexation powers in the 1950s, the central cities in regions such as Houston, Phoenix and Nashville are mammoth entities at 656, 516 and 502 square miles respectively. Louisville clocks in at 399, Austin at 297 and Charlotte at 243. In other word, these cities are filled with huge newer developed stretches that would be positioned as suburbs in northern metros such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.
Opportunity and social problems tend to be distributed differently in these new-style metros too. The main city is more likely to be associated with dependable services, shorter commutes and solid schools. With some exceptions, beyond its far reaches, suburbs and exurbs are places of cheap land, tract housing and reduced services — more often backwaters than country-club communities. In a similar way, social problems tend to be less concentrated in the center: think the abandoned strip-mall parking lots of “Cops,” not the tenements of “Mean Streets.” And college degrees? From Charlotte to Nashville, Louisville and Phoenix, those in the large central city are more likely to have them than their suburban counterparts. (In Houston, it’s essentially even and the pattern also holds in metros such as Atlanta and Orlando, where the central cities are much smaller geographically.)
All of this makes it more difficult to find apples-to-apples comparisons for cities such as Milwaukee. This region’s city-suburbs disparity looks more familiar — but still more pronounced — when viewed alongside those of cities with similar characteristics such as Philadelphia and Baltimore (where compact but relatively high population central cities anchor their regions). Curiously, compact cities such as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati that have lost a huge share of their population now rank better at the city level, but rank rather low in college grads at the regional level. St. Louis — where the central city accounts for a paltry 11.3% of metro population compared to 38% for the city of Milwaukee — comes close to fitting this pattern too.
As for those high-growth metros of the South with their big, sprawling central cities, they often lag at the metro level in terms of their college attainment: Houston, Orlando, Nashville, Louisville and Phoenix all have a lower share of grads than metro Milwaukee (Charlotte is about on par while Atlanta is better-ranked). But many of them excel or are at least above average when it comes to generating or attracting African-American college grads. That’s a particular problem for Milwaukee (ranked 80th at the city level and 87th at the metro level), the impact of which is felt far beyond metropolitan rankings.
Bruce Murphy concludes: This is a very thoughtful analysis by both readers, which suggests how dicey it can be comparing cities or metro areas. On balance, I still think the Milwaukee metro area is doing relatively well in the percent of college educated — particularly when you consider the frequent cry that this state is suffering a brain drain. (That doesn’t appear to be so in Milwaukee and Madison, the state’s two biggest economic drivers.) On the other hand, the city of Milwaukee is beset by tremendous poverty, which affects every kind of ranking, including for college attainment.