The city is making progress on educational attainment, but not nearly enough.
Here we go again. Ten years ago we teamed up to write a report about how Milwaukee compared to the other 50 largest U.S. cities. It would be understandable to ask if we really need another report on the Milwaukee economy. Based on what we have found, the answer is yes. The data show that Milwaukee has continued to fall behind the 49 other cities we studied.
Ten years ago, our research showed that for 30 years, Milwaukee had been falling further behind the average large U.S. city. In the years since our first report, the gap has actually widened. Specifically, the data show Milwaukee falling further behind in population (most cities are growing faster than Milwaukee), employment (the average city employment grew by 74% since 1970, Milwaukee’s shrank by 13%) and income (since 1970, the per capita income in the average city has grown by 50% more than it grew in Milwaukee).
It is now increasingly clear what makes some cities more prosperous than others: the educational attainment of the population. Specifically, the 40 years of data we gathered on the 50 largest U.S. cities show that those cities with a higher percentage of their population holding a college degree or better and those cities that experience higher-than-average growth in their college-educated populations have higher per capita incomes. The message is unmistakable. Milwaukee has fallen behind its large-city peers in both income and education. Why are some cities more prosperous than others? The answer lies in the educational attainment of a city’s population.
Readers of this report should have two concerns. First, since this trend of falling behind other cities has continued for 40-years-plus, acceptance may have set in. The majority of the people living in Milwaukee have not known a time when Milwaukee ranked among the most prosperous cities. Second, many people simply do not realize that having a more educated population is good for the overall economic prospects of Milwaukee. Our first report on this subject, published 10 years ago, with its message of attracting a more educated population, did not rest easy on many ears. It was interpreted as being too negative, too academic. We were not able to convince average citizens that attracting more college-educated people would benefit the whole city.
Since then, University of California-Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti has documented why everyone in the city of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee metro area and Wisconsin should care about adding to Milwaukee’s college-educated population. His research found that for every innovation job in a city, five additional jobs are created (lawyers, nurses, waiters, carpenters, etc.). In the current environment — in which job creation is paramount — this message is critical. But Moretti’s research addresses not just jobs but also income. He found that increasing the percentage of college graduates will increase salaries for all workers in a city. In fact, the most significant impact is on those workers who are high school dropouts.
Increasing jobs and increasing incomes is the goal of every community leader. A surefire way to accomplish both is to increase the number of college graduates. We offer a handful of ideas that will help move Milwaukee in that direction. Yet the most important step is the first one: acknowledging the importance of and fully committing to a strategy of increasing the number of college graduates in Milwaukee.