New paper explores why college graduates end up clustering in certain cities

December 19, 2023

Contact: Jon Meerdink ([email protected])

ANN ARBOR — College graduates in the United States have become more and more concentrated in a few select cities, but that may not be because those cities are the best places for them to be. A new paper suggests that college graduates don’t necessarily pick their post-graduate cities because they prefer to live there, instead approaching job and location as a package decision.

In “‘I Was Open to Anywhere, It’s Just This Was Easier:’ Social Structure, Location Preferences, and the Geographic Concentration of Elite College Graduates,” published in Qualitative Sociology in November, Robert Manduca, Ph.D., explores that reality, examining how and why recent college graduates came to live in the city of Boston.

Manduca, a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research’s Stone Center for Inequality Dynamics, approached the topic from both a scholarly perspective and personal interest. After his own graduation, Manduca had planned to move to California but ended up staying relatively close to where he’d finished his studies, ultimately landing a position in the Washington, D.C. area.

“I enjoyed my time living there, but I always thought it would have been great if I had been able to move to where I actually wanted to go,” he said. “But I, like almost all my friends, ended up in a major city on the east coast.”

To explore that phenomenon, Manduca interviewed 44 recent college graduates, focusing on those who moved to the metropolitan Boston area. He found that while these students could likely have found employment just about anywhere, it was too cognitively overwhelming for them to search for jobs all over the country. Instead, they dismissed most possible destinations without serious consideration. Most students used one of two strategies: either ruling out potential employment destinations based on general regional attributes, such as climate or walkability, or simply choosing to apply in places where they believed they had the highest chances of success.

The decision framework they used, in turn, steered them toward certain cities where they or their university already had strong connections.

“Very few of the people I talked to got their job by going on and searching for a job,” he said. “It was much more common to either go through their university career services website or through an internship they have had.”

Since elite universities tend to be clustered in a few select cities, this can lead to an increased geographic concentration of college graduates, or educational polarization.

“The search methods themselves, above and beyond my respondents’ own desires and the geography of employment opportunities, served to concentrate these graduates in the human capital-dense Boston metro area,” Manduca wrote in the paper. “Policymakers seeking to reduce educational polarization, then, should examine ways to change the way in which graduates search for jobs, in addition to altering the spatial distribution of the jobs themselves.”

The full text of the paper is available via Springer Link.

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