View of downtown San Antonio from UTSA's Downtown Campus. Courtesy photo.
View of downtown San Antonio from UTSA's Downtown Campus. Courtesy photo.

Like all cities, San Antonio appreciates seeing its name in the lights. We are world-famous for the Spurs, the Alamo and the Missions and the River Walk. The Pearl and the Museum and Mission Reaches of the San Antonio River are increasingly drawing attention, too.

Then there is the other kind of attention not so welcome, when San Antonio’s name turns up on the wrong lists. We’ve all grimaced while reading about our obesity rates, poverty and dropout levels, and other significant challenges.

City Observatory's report, "The Young and Restless and the Nation's Cities." Click here to download.
City Observatory’s report, “The Young and Restless and the Nation’s Cities.” Click here to download.

I turned with some enthusiasm and expectation late last night to the tablet edition of the New York Times and the headline, “Where Young College Graduates Are Choosing to Live.” The story was based on the first report issued by City Observatory, a new think tank, titled Young and Restless: How Is Your City Doing?  The report ranks the 51 metro areas doing the best job of attracting college-educated young professionals.

San Antonio, I hoped, would be among the hot new destination cities.

“The Young and Restless—25 to 34 year-olds with a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education—are increasingly moving to the close-in neighborhoods of the nation’s large metropolitan areas,” the report states at the outset. “This migration is fueling economic growth and urban revitalization.

“Using data from the recently released American Community Survey, this report examines population change in the 51 metropolitan areas with 1 million or more population, and focuses on the change in population in close-in neighborhoods, those places within 3 miles of the center of each metropolitan area’s primary central business district.”

The study confirmed these key trends:

  • Young, college age professionals are disproportionately found in the nation’s 51 largest metro areas, those with one million people or more.
  • The young professional are moving in to close-in urban neighborhoods in these cities, rejecting the suburbs.
  •  More businesses are relocating to the urban core of cities to make themselves more attractive to these workers.
  • The availability of talented young workers has high correlation to the formation of startup businesses.
  • Talented young professionals are key to urban revitalization.
  • Young, talented workers are the most mobile Americans.

So far, so good. Sounded like San Antonio to me. Then I read on.

Denver, San Diego, Nashville, Salt Lake City and Portland. Those were the cities leading the pack. Hmm. No mention of San Antonio at the top. We must be in the next tier, I told myself. Scanning down, I saw that Houston and Austin both made the accompanying chart of leading cities the Times published, but still no San Antonio. I finished the article without reading a mention of the city.

That sent me back to the study itself, and what I found was not pretty. As I scrolled through the third section of the report, “The Young and Restless by Metropolitan Area,” my eye caught this paragraph:

San Antonio, Las Vegas and Riverside have the  lowest levels of college attainment among 25 to 34 year olds (less than 25 percent in each case), even though in each instance college attainment rates have increased for this age group over the past decade.

The good news for San Antonio, buried at number 35 on the list of 51 cities, is that over the last decade, the city’s college graduate population has grown by 50.5%, a rate that is near the top of the list of the 51 cities. The problem?  San Antonio’s total number of college graduates was so low in the year 2000 that even 50.5% growth by 2010 only gives us 80,137 college grads between the ages of 25-34, compared to 302,521 in Dallas (20.1% growth), 278,898 in Houston (49.1% growth) and 128,027 in Austin (44.3% growth).

Put another way, San Antonio is 8,000 college graduates behind Austin’s 2000 number.  In other words, the city has engineered a significant turn around in the last decade, and the numbers from 2010-14 are probably even more impressive, based on anecdotal evidence, but San Antonio was starting from such a low point that even now it badly trails its competitor cities.

You have to read to page 19 of the report to find this glimmer of hope:

The difference in the experiences of the three largest metros in Texas is interesting. Since 2000, total population has grown about 30 percent in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. But while Houston and San Antonio have seen their population of well-educated young adults increase by 50 percent, the increase in Dallas has lagged behind overall population growth, and is up 20 percent. In Houston and San Antonio, the growth of talented young workers leads overall population growth; in Dallas it lags.

Some regional cities that often appear on the same lists as San Antonio, including Portland, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Columbus, Raleigh and Charlotte, have numbers that actually look more like Austin than San Antonio.

The study also ranks the same 51 metro areas based on the percentage of 25-34 year-olds in each city who are college grads. Here San Antonio falls to third worst in the group, improving from 21% to 25% in the 2000-10 decade. Only Las Vegas and Riverside, CA fare worse. In the top cities – Washington D.C., San Francisco, Boston and San Jose – 50% or more of 25-34 year-olds have a four-year degree. In Austin, it’s 40.8%; Dallas, 30.7%; and Houston, 29.7%.

From the City Observatory Report.
From the City Observatory Report.

While San Antonio placed unprecedented attention on “The Decade of Downtown” under former Mayor Julián Castro, demographic trends showed that for all its urban core transformation, San Antonio continued to develop as one of the most sprawling cities in the country, with many of the city’s best jobs located far from the central city. So it’s no surprise that in the study’s measurements of the top metro area for young urban professionals living in close-in neighborhoods, San Antonio ranks fourth from last, with less than 3,000 college educated workers living in close-in neighborhoods in 2010, according to the census data that forms the basis for the report. That’s 41% better than the 2000 count, but still very low.

The good news is that construction and leasing of new residential units alone in the urban core shows that San Antonio’s inner city, college-educated population is growing robustly, but again, the city is improving on a very weak position.

The study is bound to spark a local debate among city leaders, planners and developers about how best to accelerate the positive trends: Do we build more residential density and expect the jobs to follow, or does San Antonio need to attract more employers downtown to keep growing the population of inner city, college-educated professionals?

It’s a timely conversation as As City Council takes the next steps in Mayor Ivy Taylor’s efforts to produce a comprehensive development master plan and transportation master plan. The Comprehensive Planning Committee‘s next scheduled meeting will be Thursday at 11 a.m. in the B Session room of the Municipal Plaza Building.

*Featured/top image: View of downtown San Antonio from UTSA’s Downtown Campus. Courtesy photo.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.