TO BUILD A great city is simple, the politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said. First create a university, then wait 200 years. By that logic, the Midwest has decent assets. It is home to lots of excellent universities, and hordes of more modest ones. All influence the cities around them. Those that thrive often have a university at their core; educated places do well long-term. Edward Glaeser of Harvard cites examples. If fewer than 5% of adults had a college degree in a city in 1940 then, 60 years on, no more than 19% did. In cities where more than 5% were graduates in 1940, the later share was up to 29%. Gains made early are felt for generations. He divides the Midwest in two. States in the west, such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, are better educated than those in the east and have prospered more.
John Austin, at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, has written a study arguing that the Midwest’s institutional brainpower is exceptional. He says 15 of the world’s 200 top-ranked research universities are there. (In fact, by defining the Midwest expansively, he counts 20.) The “big ten” state universities, which oddly number 14, have 600,000 students, 50,000 faculty and draw annual research funds of $10.6bn, more than the Ivy League and Californian universities combined. The Midwest has 16 of the country’s 50 top-ranked medical schools, five of the 25 best computer-science ones, and 17 of 63 leading research universities. It does not do so well in STEM subjects, claiming just six of 25 top-ranked STEM colleges. Mr Austin tots up 21% of America’s patent filings, by companies and universities in the region. Almost a quarter of National Institutes of Health federal grants for developing drugs and medical technologies go to Midwestern institutions.
They in turn spread prosperity, in three ways. One is to bring in young people, often a city-sized population. Mayors want to revive town centres, so luring youthful consumers is a big plus. As a natural experiment, ask how they suffered when covid-19 sent people home. A resident of Columbus, Ohio, laments how the absence of 30,000 students and staff sapped demand for local businesses. Another example is South Bend, Indiana, where Pete Buttigieg often presents revival as mostly about political leadership. But he concedes that nearby Notre Dame university (where his father taught) mattered. Having 8,500 students beside a city of 100,000, including active ones who volunteer in local schools, is helpful. It was a boon to deploy researchers’ ideas, for example to fit wifi-enabled sensors in sewers to monitor water flow and save money. “We have a Beta City concept, we take intellectual property from the university and apply it,” he says.
Second, universities pool employable talent. Not all graduates hang around their alma mater, but cities that keep them outdo rivals. Rahm Emanuel boasts that, when he stood down as Chicago’s mayor last year, 39% of…