Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

College Towns Need to Keep Growing to Thrive

Future prosperity depends not only on local resources, but on size. Academic centers that don’t lure new residents are apt to fall behind.

West Lafayette, Ind., home of Purdue University, has the potential to grow into a major economic and population center in Indiana.
The urbanist Richard Florida recently prepared a study for the state of Michigan on how that state can boost its economic success. His report contained a provocative chart, showing that about 50 years ago, Austin, Texas, and Ann Arbor, Mich., were about the same size. Today, Austin has grown into a major metropolitan region of over 2 million people and a thriving economic center, while Ann Arbor has not grown much at all. This is despite the fact that Ann Arbor has one of the most elite public universities in the United States, the University of Michigan, and is seen as one of the Midwest’s premier cities for quality of life and innovation.

Growth in Population: Ann Arbor vs Austin, 1969-2021
Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, CAINC1 County and MSA Personal Income Summary. (Courtesy of Richard Florida and the Creative Class Group)

A similar chart reporting personal income shows that Austin has outpaced Ann Arbor in that category as well. Florida argues that for the state of Michigan to be successful, it must figure out how to scale up Ann Arbor as well as Greater Lansing, the state capital region and home to Michigan State University.

There’s a lot one can say to explain these figures. Austin is a state capital and Ann Arbor is not. Ann Arbor is also part of Greater Detroit, and has been negatively affected by the travails of that city and its automobile industry. Most notably, the national trend has simply been Sun Belt growth and Northern stagnation or decline. The difference between these two cities is to a great extent the difference between these regions, compounded over 50 years.

However, Florida’s basic thesis is unavoidable. Success for states such as Michigan, if they are to find it, will almost certainly have to include their centers of innovation getting much larger. This means especially college towns hosting major research universities.

The Midwest has a number of college towns with well-regarded research universities, mostly smaller cities than Ann Arbor, which are growing but are not Austin-style economic hubs. Examples are Urbana-Champaign, Ill., with the University of Illinois, and the Greater Lafayette area in Indiana, with Purdue University. Their states need to maximize these key assets, in terms of quality but also in terms of quantity. A failure to grow their populations means economic stagnation simply because there will not be a sufficient labor force to staff new economic initiatives.

Let’s be honest, this will be very difficult to achieve in a region where growth has been elusive. However, these places can adopt a mentality and ambition for growth. And they can avoid policies and attitudes that inhibit the growth they could have.

In particular, a number of college towns have developed an extremely strong anti-development or “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) attitude, often promoted by post-counterculture baby boomers who stayed on in these towns after school, or boomers who moved there to retire. They prefer these towns to remain an idealized version of what they were in the past. And they have a strong environmental ethos that manifests itself in opposition to building and growth. Bloomington, Ind., home to my alma mater of Indiana University, is a town very much in this mold. Ann Arbor seems to have a streak of this as well. If you told people in these communities that they would grow fivefold like Austin, they’d be horrified. This is not an auspicious environment for growth.

One interesting case to look at is Purdue University. Purdue is making a three-way push involving continued growth in its home base of West Lafayette. It is expanding into downtown Indianapolis to augment its main campus. It is targeting the I-65 corridor between the two cities as what Purdue President Mung Chiang calls a “hard tech” corridor. And the state of Indiana is developing a megasite of as much as 9,000 acres between Indianapolis and West Lafayette aimed at advanced manufacturing. Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly has already committed to a multibillion-dollar investment there.

This hits three needed elements. Universities in college towns need to expand into the downtowns of their states’ economic centers. The University of Michigan is doing this in Detroit and the University of Illinois is doing it in Chicago. Purdue is now making a major push into Indianapolis as well, which is the first element they need to hit. The second element is aligning with major state economic development initiatives, in Purdue’s case the state building its industrial megasite halfway between Indianapolis and Lafayette.

In keeping with Richard Florida’s study, an ambition toward growth and scale, for Purdue and the communities where it is active, is important to cultivate as the third needed element. For example, Lafayette is typically classified as a small Indiana city. While aspiring to be the size of Austin may be a bridge too far, Lafayette could and should be ambitious to add another 100,000 residents to close the gap with the larger Indiana metropolitan areas of Evansville and South Bend. Lafayette’s Tippecanoe County has already been growing at a steady clip, up over 9 percent since 2010, so this is not a total fantasy. Purdue, Lafayette, Indianapolis and the places in between all need to be thinking big.

Other college towns such as Ann Arbor, Lansing, Iowa City and Champaign have their own unique combination of attributes that need to be taken into account in strategies right for them and their states. But as Florida correctly points out, these centers of knowledge and talent production need to be growing. They are among their states’ greatest strategic assets.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.

An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
From Our Partners