Federal Reserve Bank of New York
Do Colleges and Universities Increase
Their Region’s Human Capital?
Jaison R. Abel
Staff Report no. 401
Revised March 2011
This paper presents preliminary findings and is being distributed to economists
and other interested readers solely to stimulate discussion and elicit comments.
The views expressed in the paper are those of the authors and are not necessarily
reflective of views at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal
Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the authors.
Do Colleges and Universities Increase Their Region’s Human Capital?
Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz
Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Reports, no. 401
October 2009; revised March 2011
JEL classification: R10, J24, O18
We investigate whether the degree production and research and development (R&D)
activities of colleges and universities are related to the amount and types of human capital
present in the metropolitan areas where the institutions are located. Our results indicate
only a small positive relationship exists between a metropolitan area’s production and
stock of human capital, suggesting that migration plays an important role in the
geographic distribution of human capital. We also find that academic R&D activities
increase local human capital levels, suggesting that spillovers from such activities can
raise the demand for human capital. Consistent with these results, we show that
metropolitan areas with more higher education activity tend to have a larger share of
workers in high human capital occupations. Thus, this research indicates that colleges and
universities can raise local human capital levels by increasing both the supply of and
demand for skill.
Key words: human capital, higher education, knowledge spillovers, local economic
Abel: Federal Reserve Bank of New York (e-mail: email@example.com). Deitz: Federal
Reserve Bank of New York (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). The views expressed in this paper
are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of
New York or the Federal Reserve System.
Colleges and universities in the United States are increasingly being viewed as
engines of local economic development. This trend has been driven by the economic
success stories of places such as Silicon Valley and the Route 128 corridor around
Boston, as well as the more general recognition of the transition now underway towards a
more knowledge-based economy. Furthermore, there appears to be a widespread belief
among policymakers, particularly in declining regions, that the retention of graduates
from local colleges and universities is a promising pathway to cure their economic ills.
Indeed, the amount of human capital in a region is one the strongest predictors of
sustained economic vitality. Studies of regional economies have linked higher levels of
human capital to increases in population and employment growth, wages, income, and
innovation (Glaeser, Scheinkman, and Shleifer, 1995; Simon, 1998; Carlino, Chatterjee,
and Hunt, 2007; Florida, Mellander, and Stolarick, 2008). Moreover, larger amounts of
human capital within a region have been shown to lead to more rapid reinvention and
long-run economic growth (Glaeser and Saiz, 2004; Glaeser, 2005). These empirical
findings are explained by the fact that human capital increases individual-level
productivity and idea generation (Becker, 1964). Thus, by extension, a higher level of
human capital within a region raises regional productivity. In addition, the concentration
of human capital within a region may facilitate knowledge spillovers, which further
enhance regional productivity, fuel innovation, and promote growth (Marshall, 1890;
Jacobs, 1969; Lucas, 1988; Romer, 1990; Rauch, 1993; Moretti, 2004).
Given the importance of human capital to the economic performance of regional
economies, there is surprisingly little research analyzing the factors that drive differences
in human capital accumulation across space. This issue is of particular concern as recent
research has demonstrated that a divergence in human capital levels has occurred across
cities over the past several decades (Berry and Glaeser, 2005). The objective of this paper
is to shed some light on this issue by analyzing whether activities performed by colleges
and universities (“higher education activities”) are related to the amount and types of
human capital located in metropolitan areas.
We consider two types of higher education activities that have the potential to
raise local human capital levels. First, colleges and universities can increase the local
supply of human capital through the production of skilled labor. Newly minted graduates
directly raise the human capital level in a region if they remain in the area and enter the
local labor market. However, because college graduates are highly mobile (Kodrzycki,
2001; Faggian, McCann, and Sheppard, 2007; Whisler et al., 2008), it is not obvious that
regions producing more graduates will also have higher human capital levels as a
complex set of labor supply and demand factors are at work. Second, much of the
research and development (R&D) activity in the United States occurs at colleges and
universities. Such activities can also raise local human capital levels if there are spillovers
into the local economy that increase the demand for human capital, whether such human
capital is produced locally or not.
While the pathways through which these higher education activities can act to
raise local human capital levels are clear, systematic empirical evidence documenting the
existence and magnitude of such relationships is scarce. Because state governments are
an important source of funding for U.S. higher education institutions, much of the
existing literature has attempted to examine the relationship between the production of
degrees and stock of college graduates from the perspective of a state government
analyzing the return on its investment (Bound et al., 2004; Groen, 2004). From the
standpoint of local economic development, however, a state may not be a meaningful unit
of measure because it is often too large to capture the local labor markets in which
colleges and universities are located. Moreover, while these studies provide insight into
the extent to which colleges and universities influence the supply side of the labor
market, they do not consider the role colleges and universities play in shaping the local
demand for human capital through the spillovers they can create.
Indeed, there is mounting evidence indicating that highly localized spillovers exist
between university research and high technology innovative activity (Jaffe, 1989; Acs,
Audretsch, and Feldman, 1991; Jaffe, Trajtenberg, and Henderson, 1993; Anselin, Varga,
and Acs, 1997; Varga, 2000; Adams, 2002). Such spillovers can alter the composition of
local labor markets by increasing the demand for specialized skills and by attracting
business activity, such as start up firms, seeking to gain access to academic R&D or
human capital (Beeson and Montgomery, 1993; Audretsch, Lehmann, and Warning,
2005; Woodward, Figueiredo, and Guimaraes, 2006). While the existing literature
demonstrates the importance of colleges and universities to specific industries,
particularly those utilizing science and technology, little is known about the extent to
which the activities of colleges and universities influence local economic development
more generally. Recent research by Andersson, Quigley, and Wilhelmsson (2004, 2009),
showing that the decentralization of higher education in Sweden yielded regional and
national productivity benefits, has started to fill this void in the literature. However, this
work emphasizes the research dimension of universities, rather than the broader set of
higher education activities.
By analyzing the relationships that exist between the activities performed by
colleges and universities and local human capital levels, this paper extends the existing
literature in three ways. First, our research provides new insight into the economic
geography of higher education activities in the United States. We compile data on the
degrees produced and academic R&D expenditures incurred at the metropolitan area
level, and show that academic R&D activity tends to be much more geographically
concentrated than degree production.
Second, we provide what we believe are the first estimates of the relationship
between these two types of higher education activities and the stock of human capital at
the metropolitan area level, a unit of measure that closely reflects local labor markets and
can account for the localized nature of knowledge spillovers. Our analysis addresses
issues that may arise from the potential endogeneity of a region’s higher education
activities. Among the reasons such endogeneity may exist is that colleges and universities
require human capital to produce higher education degrees and to conduct academic
R&D. Furthermore, if knowledge spillovers exist, they may flow in both directions if, for
example, innovative activities in the local business sector flow back to influence the
degree production or academic R&D activities of local colleges and universities.
To address potential endogeneity issues, we develop an instrumental variables
approach that exploits exogenous variation in the characteristics of colleges and
universities to predict differences in higher education activities across metropolitan areas.
We use a set of three variables to simultaneously instrument for both degree production
and academic R&D activity: the share of degrees awarded by public universities in a
metropolitan area, the presence of a land-grant university, and the presence of a Research
I university as classified by the Carnegie Foundation. Because the instruments we
propose capture differences in the colleges and universities themselves, it is plausible that
any effect they may have on local human capital levels operate only through the activities
of these institutions. As such, this analysis allows us to address the question of whether
colleges and universities increase their region’s human capital. Our results indicate only a
small positive relationship exists between a metropolitan area’s production and stock of
human capital, suggesting that migration plays an important role in the geographic
distribution of human capital. At the same time, we demonstrate that the academic R&D
activities of higher education institutions act to increase local human capital levels,
suggesting that the spillovers from such activities can increase the demand for human
capital, creating opportunities to attract and retain skilled labor.
Finally, our analysis examines the link between the occupational structure of a
metropolitan area and its higher education activities. Consistent with our main results, we
find a positive relationship between a metropolitan area’s higher education activities and
the share of workers in high human capital occupations. This outcome appears to be
particularly connected to the research intensity of metropolitan areas, as linkages between
local economies and higher education institutions appear to be strongest in economic
activities requiring innovation and technical training. In total, this research improves our
understanding of whether and how local colleges and universities increase their region’s
THE GEOGRAPHY OF HIGHER EDUCATION ACTIVITIES
Colleges and universities in the United States conferred more than 2.2 million
higher education degrees in 2006. About two-thirds of these degrees were bachelor’s
degrees, followed by master’s degrees (27 percent), and first-professional degrees or
doctoral degrees (7 percent). Similarly, in 2006, more than $49.6 billion was spent on
R&D activities at academic institutions. We calculate the amount of this higher education
activity occurring in metropolitan areas, and assess the geographic concentration of each.
Degree Production in Metropolitan Areas
To measure a metropolitan area’s degree production, we utilize Integrated
Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data published by the National Center for
Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education. IPEDS is a survey-
based system that collects and provides data from all primary providers of postsecondary
education in a number of areas, including enrollments, degree completions, faculty and
staff, and finances.1 To construct measures of degree production by metropolitan area, we
map degree completion information for more than 4,000 higher education institutions to
their respective metropolitan areas using zip code information, aggregating over degree
types. We collect this information for the 2005-2006 and 1999-2000 academic years, and
are able to assign this information to 283 metropolitan areas in the United States.2 The
metropolitan areas in our analysis housed nearly 80 percent of the population and
produced over 80 percent of the higher education degrees conferred in the United States
in both years.
As Figure 1 shows, higher education degrees are produced widely across the
United States, although the largest producers are located along the east and west coasts,
around the Great Lakes region, and in Texas. Table 1 reports the top 20 metropolitan
areas based on degree production. In almost all cases, there are a number of well-known
1 The Higher Education Act of 1992 mandates completion of IPEDS surveys for all institutions that
participate in any federal student aid program. As a result, the IPEDS database captures information
from virtually all higher education institutions operating in the United States. To the extent possible,
we have omitted degrees conferred by institutions that primarily provide online training. We omit
Associates degrees from our analysis because much of the existing literature focuses on attainment of
four-year college degrees and beyond to measure regional stocks of human capital.
2 The metropolitan area definitions we use correspond to those provided by the Integrated Public Use
Microdata Series (IPUMS), which are designed to provide the most consistently identifiable unit of
geography for the 2006 American Community Survey and 2000 Census (Ruggles et al., 2008). As
such, our analysis does not include colleges and universities located outside these 283 metropolitan
areas. The largest institutions omitted from our analysis are Cornell University and Virginia Tech, as
Ithaca, NY and Blacksburg, VA are not considered metropolitan areas under the IPUMS definition.
Figure 3: Balance of Human Capital Production and Consumption in U.S. Metropolitan Areas, 2000-2006
Rate of Human Capital Production
Rate of Human Capital Consumption Rate of Human Capital Consumption
Toledo, OHToledo, OH
New Orleans, LA New Orleans, LA
Bryan-College Station, TXBryan-College Station, TX
Wilmington, NCWilmington, NC
Athens, GAAthens, GA
Gainsville, FL Gainsville, FL
Austin, TXAustin, TX
Santa Fe, NM Santa Fe, NM
Bloomington, INBloomington, IN
Provo-Orem UT Provo-Orem UT
State College, PAState College, PA
Iowa City, IA Iowa City, IA
Charlottesville, VACharlottesville, VA
Greeley, COGreeley, CO
Notes: Rate of Human Capital Production is calculated as the average annual number of higher education degrees produced per 100 working-aged people in a
metropolitan area. Rate of Human Capital Consumption is calculated as the average annual change in the number of people with at least a college degree per 100
working-aged people in a metropolitan area. Metropolitan areas above the red 45-degree line are net exporters (i.e., production > consumption), while those below
the red 45-degree line are net importers (i.e, production < consumption) of human capital. Based on 283 metropolitan areas.
Sources: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education; 2000 Census
(IPUMS 5% Sample), 2006 American Community Survey (IPUMS 1% Sample), U.S. Bureau of Cenus.
Rate of Human Capital Production
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