By Joel Kotkin

Image by

Image by

In this information age, brains are supposed to be the most valued economic currency. For California, where the regulatory environment is more difficult for companies and people who make things, this is even more the case. Generally speaking, those areas that have the heaviest concentration of educated people generally do better than those who don’t.

Nothing more illustrates this trend than the supremacy of the Bay Area over Southern California in the past five years. Since the 2007-09 recession, the Bay Area has recovered all of its jobs, as has San Diego, but Los Angeles-Orange and the Inland Empire, although improving, lag behind.

Overall, the San Jose and San Francisco areas boast shares of college graduates at around 45 percent, compared with a 34 percent average for the 52 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. The San Diego area clocks in at 34.6. In comparison, the Los Angeles-Orange County area has roughly 31 percent college graduates while the San Bernardino-Riverside area has the lowest share of four-year degrees – 20 percent – of any large region in the country – this is worse even than backwaters like Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala.

Dividing this region by counties shows Orange County well in the lead, with 37.6 percent college-educated, well above Los Angeles County’s 30 percent.

Recent Trends

To see where these metrics are headed, Mark Schill, an analyst with the Praxis Strategy Group (, was asked to identify the share growth of bachelor’s degrees in the country’s largest metropolitan areas during 2000-13. The share of the adult population with college educations rose by 6.8 percent in San Jose and 6.4 points in the San Francisco-Oakland region. Some regions did better, including Boston, Pittsburgh, Grand Rapids, Mich., Baltimore, New York and St. Louis. All these were considerably above the national average increase of 5.2 percent.

In contrast, most areas of Southern California have shown more meager growth in their educated workforces. Los Angeles, overall, enjoyed a very average increase of 5.2 percent. San Diego, despite its high-tech reputation, notched a 5 point jump while the Inland Empire increased by 3.8 points, one of the lowest performances in the country. The biggest gainer in the Southland was Orange County, where the share of educated workers grew by a healthy 6.3 percent.

Whither young, educated workers?

The picture, particularly for the Inland Empire, is not totally bleak. In a recent survey conducted by Cleveland State University, there have been some promising developments in the growth of younger educated workers. This key cohort, notes researcher Richey Piiparinen, appears to follow a very different path than do older educated workers, with many seeking out careers in less-expensive locales.

Indeed, looking at educated growth among 25-34-year-olds from 2010-13 finds that the most rapid expansion is taking place in unlikely places, such as the areas around Nashville, Tenn., Orlando, Fla., and Cleveland, all which experienced increases of roughly 20 percent or more. This is better than twice the growth rate in such noted “brain centers” as San Jose and San Francisco, which were around 10 percent, and New York at 9 percent. The Los Angeles-Orange County area saw a similar increase.

The reasons for these surprising, and somewhat encouraging results, particularly for the Inland Empire, may vary. One thing, of course, is the low base from which the area starts. After all, until the past decade, the employment profile of the Inland Empire favored manufacturing, logistics and construction, all fields not dependent on large contingents of highly educated workers.

Another critical factor may well be price, as we saw in our surprising findings on millennials. Simply put, many of the areas attractive in the past to educated workers have become extraordinarily expensive – as demonstrated by San Francisco-based writer Johnny Sanphillippo – while some more affordable locales have become “sweet spots” for younger educated people, particularly as millennials enter their family formation years.

County, city breakdowns

The Southland, of course, is a vast region, and even every county contains hosts of cities that are very different from each other. In terms of counties, the biggest gains – albeit from a smaller base – took place in the Inland Empire, notably Riverside, which saw a 93 percent jump in its educated population since 2000. Orange County saw a 37.6 percent gain, ahead of Los Angeles’ roughly 36 percent gain.

More intriguing, and revealing, is the distribution of college degrees by city areas. Here, the supremacy of a few areas is very clear. In three Southland communities, more than 60 percent of the adult populations have college degrees: Santa Monica, Newport Beach and Irvine. Yorba Linda, Pasadena and Redondo Beach all boast rates close to, or above, 50 percent.

Obviously, these towns are something of outliers in the region. Los Angeles, by far the region’s largest city, has roughly 31 percent of its adults with college degrees. Many communities do far worse, most of all, Compton, where less than 6 percent have four-year degrees. Hesperia, Southgate, Lynwood and Victorville have educated percentages under 10 percent.

Adjacent communities sometimes have radically different rates of education. Santa Ana, for example, abuts Irvine, but has an educated population of barely 12 percent. And while some areas have shown meager growth in their share of educated residents, several areas have seen double-digit percentage increases, including Burbank, Yorba Linda, Rancho Cucamonga and Santa Monica.


As the Southland economy evolves, it makes sense to look at those areas most likely to have more of the educated workers that high-end industries need. These increasingly are clustered in a few places, such as Irvine, Newport Beach, Rancho Cucamonga and Costa Mesa, that are both suburban in form but tend to have better schools than much of the region. These areas also tend to have lower-than-average unemployment rates. Educated people tend to migrate, for the most part, to areas where others of their ilk are concentrated, and often where their children have the best chance at a decent education.

These statistics and trends suggest that our leaders, in education and politics, need to focus on reality. It is dubious that many communities throughout the Southland will develop large shares of educated people in the immediate future. Indeed, given the quality of public education throughout most of the region, it seems almost inevitable that much of the region will lag in terms of skills well into the next decade.

This means that local leaders cannot expect to duplicate in the near future the success of places like Boston, the Bay Area, or even Pittsburgh. Instead, there needs to be a two-pronged attempt to address this issue. One is to boost preparatory and higher education throughout the region, which will allow for Southern California to better compete at the highest-end of employment.

But the other strategy, not to be discounted, is a full-scale commitment to skills training for those unlikely to earn bachelor’s degrees. This also means taking measures allowing the industries that would employ such workers – largely manufacturing, logistics, medical and business services – to flourish, so this training will have rewards. The Southland’s already large educated population is one key to its future, but finding a decent work environment for those without a four-year degree merits equal, if not greater, emphasis.

This piece first appeared at the Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. His newest book, is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.