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Atlanta's Talent Attraction Problem

From 2000–2013, Atlanta has fallen further behind other large metros in growing its population of college-educated young adults.
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View of Atlanta, Georgia, from the Peachtree Westin Hotel. (Photo: Valerie/Flickr)

View of Atlanta, Georgia, from the Peachtree Westin Hotel. (Photo: Valerie/Flickr)

A few weeks ago, I raised some concerns about the benefits of attracting college-educated residents. The luring of outsiders has come at the expense of educating tenured locals. Why spend money on schools when the natural beauty of your state dazzles the best and brightest all over the country? Instead of investing in the future, the future moves to Colorado.

Colorado doesn't have a monopoly on beautiful mountains. College graduates can get a better deal on arguably a better view in Montana, Idaho, or Utah. Word gets around, eventually. Real estate in Denver grows ever more unaffordable. The flow of talent streams towards greener pastures. Suddenly, short-changing schools in Colorado doesn't look so smart.

In Atlanta, the chickens have come home to roost. For African Americans, Atlanta is Denver. College-educated blacks have streamed into the region and bolstered the attainment rate. Locals are an afterthought. A similar story haunts Washington, D.C., and Raleigh, North Carolina. Politicians pander to people who don't live there (yet):

"It's a very serious issue. You see buildings are being built, highrises and new industries, new people—there's a lot of life and vitality in this city," says Michelle Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. "But it's unfortunate that many of the people who grow up in this area or have gone to public schools in this area are not educated to ultimately be able to take advantage of all of these opportunities."

Atlanta bristles at such critiques. I made a similar and specific point about a streetcar project. Soon after, on Twitter, "You are blocked from following [Mayor] @KasimReed and viewing @KasimReed's Tweets." Hey Mayor Reed, don't shoot the messenger:

Just before a shower of confetti and a sliced ribbon released a huge, navy blue beetle from its moorings on Tuesday, A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, had a word for the old fogeys who can’t fathom why his city has spent nearly $100 million to revive a streetcar system that has been dead these 50 years.

“Frankly, we did not build it for you,” Robinson said. “We built it because Atlanta is in a global competition for attracting future human capital. We built it so that we will have a shot at having our children and grandchildren stay here in Atlanta.”

Michelle Cooper can thank A.J. Robinson for proving her point. In talent attraction, Atlanta aims low. Improving regional educational outcomes is hard work and doesn't come cheap. It also doesn't come with a sliced ribbon photo opportunity. Mayor Kasim Reed should be ashamed.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.