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– November 21, 2013

AIER’s College Destinations Index (CDI) looks at informal learning and lifestyle opportunities in 229 metropolitan areas that are homes to colleges and universities. We sort each metro according to size and gather data for 12 metrics chosen to describe three broad categories critical to an optimal student experience: Academic Environment, Quality of Life, and Professional Opportunity. We analyze the results to come up with the year’s 75 best college areas.

Over the past few years, America has slowly pulled itself out of a severe recession. But recoveries are never uniform across all sectors of an economy and all geographic regions of a country. This year, we saw metropolitan areas experiencing jumps in arts & leisure (a component of Quality of Life), while smaller gains were made in entrepreneurial activity (a component of Professional Opportunity). But some metros experienced markedly stronger gains than others.

Arts & leisure is a direct measure of the number of recreational establishments or entertainment activities per 100,000 residents. A high score is a good indicator of a lively town or city with plenty of activities to engage a youthful and social population. When the recession struck, many metro areas were hit especially hard in arts & leisure as college students and the general population tightened their wallets. Now, with the economy in a period of growth, people are spending more at recreational establishments, and more of these establishments are opening.

Entrepreneurial activity shows the net total increase in businesses per 100,000 residents.  In last year’s CDI, which was largely based on business-related data from the height of the recession, only four out of the top 75 college metros showed positive growth in this metric.  Many areas that did well relative to other localities were still losing businesses, but not as severely as other metros. This year’s rankings are based on post-recession data. We are seeing a gradual turnaround—with new businesses and growth opportunities in many areas. These new ventures are important for overall economic prosperity. For students, a strong economy means greater opportunities for career-building internships and part-time work, and post-graduate jobs.

Charlottesville, home to the 21,000-student University of Virginia, is a good model of a recovering economy. Pre-recession data shown in the 2011 index had it ranked sixth among college towns, with strong showings in both arts and leisure and entrepreneurial activity.

When the crash hit, Charlottesville was not spared—losing around ten arts and entertainment establishments per 100,000 residents. Worse still, it fell drastically into the negatives inentrepreneurial activity, losing close to 70 businesses per 100,000 residents. The changes pushed Charlottesville’s ranking to 13 last year.

 This year, the data shows Charlottesville making a comeback, up over 26 percent in arts & leisureestablishments to actually top pre-recession levels at around 50 businesses per 100,000 residents. At the same time, the downward spiral for entrepreneurial activity has significantly slowed. The area lost less than ten businesses per 100,000 residents in the past year, while unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent. These shifts were enough to lift Charlottesville to ninth in its size category this year. 

Albany, the New York State capital, contains a large number of colleges and universities, from SUNY-Albany, to Sienna College, to the new College of Nano Scale Science and Engineering. This year, the capitol rose nine spots, from 21st to 12th, among small cities.

Back in the 2011, Albany held a solid number of arts & leisure establishments at 44 per 100,000 residents, while its business growth was a respectable 45 per 100,000. With the economic downturn,arts & leisure establishments fell to around 21 per 100,000 residents. Entrepreneurial activity fared even worse. The area lost 25 businesses for every 100,000 of the population, for a total loss of over 200 businesses. The changes knocked Albany from 14th in the rankings to out of the top 20 for small cities. 

The 2013 CDI puts Albany’s arts & leisure offerings at 47 per 100,000, with business growth cracking just into positives at two per 100,000. Like Charlottesville, Albany has a long road to a full recovery. Still these numbers describe a place where people are once again starting new businesses, getting jobs, and having fun.

This year, Oklahoma City dropped from third to 12th among the CDI’s mid-size metros.  However, the decline isn’t correlated with substantial dips in any statistical categories. The Oklahoma City metropolitan statistical area, which includes Norman, Okla., and the 30,000 student campus of the University of Oklahoma, didn’t see sizable gains in any metrics during the recovery. While other metros saw an influx of jobs and investments, Oklahoma City did not, remaining relatively consistent from its pre-recession numbers up to the most recent data.  

As a result, during the recession, Oklahoma City did not suffer as much as other mid-size metros. This stability boosted their comparative rankings in the 2012 index, but it brought them down this year as other metros began to recover.

Los Angeles unsurprisingly was a bastion for arts & leisure establishments during the bull market. In the 2011 CDI, arts & leisure came in at a lofty 91 establishments per 100,000 residents. In this same index,entrepreneurial activity was an equally high 67 businesses created per 100,000 of the population, and overall LA ranked seventh among major metros.

When the recession hit and growth halted, LA’s arts & leisure was cut by more than two-thirds to 24 per 100,000 residents while the city lost close to 60 businesses per 100,000. These drops were so dramatic that LA plunged to 15th, barely making the final list. 

As the economy has picked up, LA again finds itself in a good position and back at the number seven spot in its size category. Arts & leisure establishments are up slightly above pre-recession numbers—around 99 new establishments per 100,000. Still, like Albany and Charlottesville, LA has a ways to go—fighting against a small net loss of 14 businesses per 100,000.

The CDI has shown us an economy in recovery. Many changes in the rankings have brought college destinations back to numbers they had seen before the economic crash.  For students, as for the larger economy, this spells good news as opportunities expand for work, cultural enrichment and the informal networking that can last a lifetime.

To download your free 2013/2014 College Destinations Index pdf brochure ranking all 75 top destinations, click here.

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