Remarks presented to the Common Council of Bloomington, Indiana by
Member, District VI, Common Council
City of Bloomington, Indiana USA
March 1, 2006
A month ago, Indiana University’s first-ever provost and second-
ever University chancellor began in their new posts. The men’s
basketball coach is departing soon, as is the dean of arts and
sciences; even the president has announced he’ll be moving on
before too long. It’s a time of great transition on the other side
of Indiana Avenue.
Right now it’s Oscar season in Hollywood, when we’re reminded
locally of the triumph in 1980 of a story that was about both
Indiana University and the city of Bloomington. “Breaking Away”
was filmed on location, but Bloomington wasn’t just a backdrop.
The movie was all about the differences between IU students who
came from elsewhere, and young people who were born and raised
here, how they related and how they clashed as they made the
transition into adulthood. Bloomington, as it was, warts and all,
was a featured character as much as Dennis Christopher’s or Paul
Dooley’s. “Breaking Away” was the definitive “college-town” movie.
In April 1980, nominated for five Oscars, that classic story of a
bucolic college town won for Best Original Screenplay. As it
happened, at that same moment, Bloomington itself was making a
definitive break from its past. April 1980 was the moment that
Bloomington, Indiana outgrew the term “college town.”
Nations, states, even universities are formed by fiat. Someone
powerful says, “When in the course of human events,” or “We the
representatives of the people of the Territory of Indiana,” or “It
shall be the duty of the General assembly…to provide…a state
university,” and it happens.
But cities are the largest form of political unit that crop up
naturally, according to author Jane Jacobs. They form where people
gather, to trade goods, to trade services, news, ideas. Cities are
not just population centers, they’re economic centers —
With the advent of the automobile, the federal Bureau of the
Census began to look at the area surrounding a city, to count all
the people coming in (or going out) to work. By 1950 the
government had defined the notion of a “metropolitan area” and had
begun tracking and comparing them as well as cities proper.
A metropolitan area usually, but not always, has 100,000 or more
people, and typically includes an important city of 50,000 or
more, the county (or counties) it resides in, and the counties
bordering them that are socio-economically integrated with the
city in question. There are now more than 300 metro areas in the
It was the 1980 census in which Bloomington for the first time
exceeded a population of 50,000, thus joining the ranks of the
nation’s metropolitan areas.
While the Census Bureau does the counting, determination of
metropolitan areas, and of the definition of which outlying
counties are to be included in one, are actually made by a
different federal agency: the Office of Management and Budget.
There is no better demonstration that “metropolitan area” is of
economic significance. It is a simple, easily determined indicator
of economic as well as demographic activity.
Localities have since found these measurements to be of value when
determining where their economies stand. Bloomington’s own
Economic Development Corporation, with the cooperation of the
Indiana Business Research Center at IU’s Kelley School of
Business, has used just such data to benchmark Bloomington’s
economic progress against similar cities, every two years since
2000. I quote from the most recent BEDC Benchmarking report,
issued in late 2004:
“With which cities should the Bloomington/Monroe County area be
compared for purposes of benchmarking? In theory, comparison
places should be similar to the local area with respect to size
and growth rate, economic characteristics, and other qualities
that help distinguish the Bloomington area from other cities in
We owe the BEDC thanks for commissioning the series of benchmark
studies on Bloomington. Since I was eager to put such information
to use in thinking about city issues beyond purely economic ones,
I wondered what criteria they used for choosing Bloomington’s
peers. They said:
“…the cities used in [the 2000 and 2002] benchmarking efforts
(which differed somewhat from each other) provided a starting
point. BEDC officials then identified cities with which the
Bloomington area has competed in recent years for attracting new
businesses or to which the local area has lost site location
“Also considered (but not required in every case) was the
presence of a university in the community, since IU plays such
a prominent role in the local economy and culture, and many firms
consider the presence of a university a significant benefit in
While these criteria are not unreasonable for an economic
development study, I believe they have too narrow an appeal. If a
city is much larger or much smaller than Bloomington, is one
business’ decision really enough to make that city one of our
peers? The IU Bloomington campus is an enormous part of the local
economy; how can we really compare ourselves to a city without a
big university? Is this study really comparing apples to apples?
Nevertheless inspired that someone had taken the trouble to
attempt a comparison at all, I set out to find criteria that were
more quantifiable yet served a broader interest. And I found that
I had to begin by reckoning with the elephant in our midst.
THE COLLEGE BOOM-TOWN
Wanting to channel the energy of the many soldiers returning from
WWII into something productive, Congress passed the G.I. Bill to
make it easier to go to college, and by the fifties the ranks of
students swelled. The Baby Boom followed, and in the sixties
college ranks exploded. This one-two punch was a combination
unparalleled in the history of America’s cities.
Bloomington provides a simple illustration. In 1945, there were
about 5000 students at IU. By 1960, there were 14,000 students at
IU. By 1970, there were 30,000, an increase of 600% over 25 years.
It took another 25 years for IU to add another 5000 students.
College enrollments across the country mirrored these figures
during that period.
A trailing indicator of the college explosion became evident only
after the boom died out. In 1970, the Census recorded that in more
than 1 in 4 cities which became metropolitan areas that year,
college students comprised at least 15 percent of the population –
– of the whole area, not just the central city. In each of these
cases, the only possible explanation was the postwar growth of
their local universities.
These weren’t college towns; these were college boom-towns. I have
come to call this new phenomenon “the college-driven metropolitan
THE COLLEGE-DRIVEN METRO
Ann Arbor, home of the U. of Michigan, is the original college-
driven metro. It has always been the largest, because Washtenaw
County also includes Ypsilanti, home of Eastern Michigan U. Ann
Arbor first became a metropolitan area in 1960 with a population
of 172,000, 15% of whom were students. Ten short years later, the
Ann Arbor area had grown by more than a third to 234,000…yet the
proportion of students had increased to 26%.
The most spectacular of all college-driven metros is Austin, TX.
It first became a metropolitan area in 1950, with a population of
161,000. By 1970 it had doubled in size, thanks to the combined
enrollments of the University of Texas and Southwest Texas State U
in nearby San Marcos. 18% of the entire metropolitan area of
Austin was college students in 1970.
Austin and 8 other college-towns joined Ann Arbor that year, which
before were not big enough to be metropolitan areas:
- College Station-Bryan, TX
- Lafayette, IN
- Champaign-Urbana, IL
- Lawrence, KS
- Columbia, MO
- Gainesville, FL
- Tallahassee, FL
- Provo-Orem, UT
In each of these areas, students made up well more than 15% of the
population that year. In the Lawrence area alone, fully one-third
of all residents were students.
Even though the college boom ended by 1970, it didn’t manifest
itself in other college-towns until later. In 1980, four more
cities became metro areas because of their colleges’ growth:
- Athens-Clarke County, GA
- the eventual Big Ten town of State College, PA
- Iowa City, IA
- and our own Bloomington, IN
Another four grew to this status in 1990:
- Muncie, IN (which shrank its way onto the list)
- Davis, CA (although before and after 1990 it was considered
part of Sacramento)
- Charlottesville, VA
- and Greenville, NC, home of ECU.
Most recently, we’ve had another boom with the class of 2000. Ten
cities became metro areas and that year had at least 15% college
- Ithaca, NY (the second CDM caused by private schools, after
- Morgantown, WV
- Ames, IA
- Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford, VA
- Harrisonburg, VA
- Auburn-Opelika, AL
- and several out west: Corvallis, OR
- Logan, UT-ID
- Pocatello, ID
- Flagstaff, AZ
How is the 15% figure any less arbitrary than a city that beats us
out for a new business site location? In a metro area where at
least 15% of the population is the student body of a residential
college, the college is also the largest employer, often by a
Below 15%, there’s usually another type of business which employs
more people: often it’s a hospital system, sometimes it’s an
industry with anchor tenants (like Novell and WordPerfect in
Provo, UT). One city which fell between 10% and 15% I have added
to the list of CDMs because its largest employer is its local
university: Fort Collins, CO, home of Colorado State. And one area
didn’t make the list despite having the requisite number of
students, Bloomington-Normal, IL, because the megacorporation in
its midst, State Farm, was clearly driving the economy,
outnumbering employees of local colleges like Illinois State and
Illinois Wesleyan by more than 3 to 1.
Other than those, the 15% figure defines a surprisingly bright
line, below which something other than higher education helps
explain the economy of the area.
It’s important to note the significance of a university’s
employees in this discussion. As of the 2000 census, the OMB has
eliminated all but one criterion for including a county in a
metropolitan area. Quote:
“A county qualifies as an outlying county of a [metropolitan area]
if it meets the following commuting requirements:
(a) at least 25 percent of the employed residents of the
county work in the central county or counties of the
[metropolitan area]; or
(b) at least 25 percent of the employment in the county is
accounted for by workers who reside in the central county or
counties of the [metropolitan area].”
Bloomington is a perfect example of this phenomenon, too. In 2000,
the OMB expanded Bloomington’s metropolitan area to include Owen
and Greene Counties. The area now includes places as far as
Spencer and Linton and numbers 175,000 people. Yet IU students to
this day represent more than 20 percent of the population of all 3
counties put together.
WHO ARE OUR PEERS?
The BEDC specifically chose not to study this phenomenon.
“…While expanding the metro area’s population by nearly half,
adding these two rural counties also served to significantly
alter the resulting nature of what was commonly known as the
‘Bloomington metro area.’ Their economies are quite different
from that of Monroe County, so a profile of the Bloomington area
based on the new metro-area definition would give a potentially
misleading impression of what this area is actually like.
“Thus, the definition used in the present study for the
Bloomington area and comparison cities is the county containing
each metro area’s central city. These central-city counties are
generally the largest, most economically important counties
among multi-county areas comprising larger metros, and they thus
capture effectively the essential qualities of each peer city.”
I don’t think Ellettsville or Stinesville really reflect the
essential qualities of Bloomington, either, but they are in the
central county too. Here is where I fundamentally disagree with
the benchmarking study. To use only the central county misses the
whole point of the metropolitan area concept. One cannot ignore
the economic indications of the outlying counties, just as one
cannot ignore the effect of a large, inlying, resident-student
Putting the BEDC’s choices to the college-driven metro test, about
half of their benchmark cities are keepers, including Ann Arbor
(which despite its size still readily compares to Bloomington):
- Ann Arbor, MI
- Champaign IL
- Iowa City IA
- State College PA
- Columbia MO
- Lawrence KS
- Fort Collins-Loveland CO
- Logan UT
But for every apple in the BEDC study, there was an orange.
- At 550K people, Greenville, SC is 3 times the population
of the typical CDM, and has perhaps 4% college students.
- Lexington, home of our arch-rival Kentucky, seems like it
might be a demographic peer of ours, but is only 7% students; its
population size and economy are better explained by the
thoroughbred horse industry that dominates the area.
- Bellingham WA and Fayetteville AR also have 7% or fewer
- Medford OR and Florence SC have less than 5000 students.
- Owensboro KY has 1500 students.
- Sherman-Denison TX? 1000 students.
- Decatur AL has no four-year college at all.
These cities are not our peers. If anything, they should be a
separate control group against which CDMs as a group compare
CDMs vs COLLEGE-TOWNS
When I arrived here in 1986, I came across a quote in the IDS from
someone who was in charge of local tourism. The quote was:
“Bloomington without IU? Would be…well, Martinsville.”
I’m not sure I bought into that idea, but I never forgot the
quote. Then I did some research. From 1970 to 2000, the IU student
body only grew 22%, while Monroe County grew 42%. The three
counties together also grew 42%.
Over the years, as I found myself making a life in Bloomington
away from the university, I kept wondering: if this place is so
nowhere without IU, how does one explain the continued, consistent
growth of the city and the area when the student population has
all but stopped growing?
Twenty years later, I say it’s time to turn that maxim around.
“What would IU be like without Bloomington?” It’s just as absurd a
question as the other one. It might be more like Athens, Ohio.
Athens is a city of 21,000; 15,000 of them — more than 70% of the
town’s population — are students at Ohio U.
It might be more like Clemson, South Carolina. Clemson University
has a student population of 17,000…yet Clemson, SC is a city of
12,000! Only when you see this map do you see how that can be. Now
there’s an interesting sight: the Clemson campus is technically
outside the city limits of the city of Clemson, although it is
clearly an integral part of the city.
There’s no better counterpoint to the increasingly urbanizing and
robust environment in which IU’s flagship campus finds itself.
Athens OH and Clemson are not metropolitan. Athens County, OH has
grown at less than a third the rate of Monroe County since 1970.
These are not economic engines. They are thin shells around their
universities. These are truly still college towns.
Even though long-time manufacturing jobs have famously left the
community, the population of Bloomington and the surrounding area
have never shrunk, going back all the way to its very first census
in 1820. And like its CDM brethren, the Bloomington area is
outgrowing both the nation and the local student body. Just as one
cannot compare an “apple” city, like ours, to an “orange” city,
without a large college, one cannot explain Bloomington’s size,
growth and economy by its university alone.
When it comes to benchmarking our progress to other cities, it’s
impossible to ignore the symbiotic relationships they have with
their neighboring jurisdictions. And just because the Census
Bureau doesn’t concern itself with college enrollments doesn’t
mean we shouldn’t. These two simple measurements — college
enrollment and metropolitan population — taken together offer us
a wealth of understanding about the area we call home. College-
driven metros are surely Bloomington’s primary demographic and
economic peers. It’s my belief that these areas also are the best
to compare ourselves to looking for the best legislative ideas for
Bloomington, which is a big reason why I embarked on this research
project in the first place.
The phrase “college town” fails to describe Bloomington, because
it implies that the college is the only source of the town’s
economy. With all due respect to Indiana University, that’s simply
not true here. Maybe Athens, Ohio without its university, would be
just another small town like Martinsville. But IU should
acknowledge that the policies of its host city, derived
independently, made this town as green, attractive and walkable as
IU’s pretty inner campus. The good people of Bloomington have as
much impact — not more, not less — as IU administrators do in
making this area livable both culturally and economically
Bloomington hasn’t really been a “college town” for at least a
quarter-century. It’s time for us all to retire that term. The
town you may remember from your childhood has broken away; it’s
now a metropolitan area, an enormous university the core of its
economic engine, an area complete with downtown apartments, 2
million bus riders a year, and enough bitchin’ restaurants to take
the Fort Wayne Convention & Visitors’ Bureau in a fight. This is a
core city now, with suburbs, even exurbs. The mayor now holds
state of the community addresses jointly with the county. We can’t
Our community has always grown in size; whether we like it or not,
it will continue to grow. While population growth is a
sustainability issue, Rather than continue to wish for what was,
let us now clearly see what is, so that we may live with what
(C)2006 Stephen Volan. All rights reserved. www.volan.org
APPENDIX A: UNPRESENTED REMARKS AND OTHER NOTES
TABLE 1: COLLEGE-DRIVEN METROPOLITAN AREAS
TABLE 2: NEAR MISSES AND OTHER COMPARABLES
APPENDIX A: UNPRESENTED REMARKS AND ADDITIONAL NOTES
WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR DATA?
Census data was easy to get from the Bureau of the Census. But
college enrollment data is not nearly as easy to find. It is not
usually thought of as population data because the student body is
so fluid. Placing them in the context of a metropolitan area
solves that problem, and brings in those people who work at the
university as well.
There may be mistakes in individual numbers. Fall enrollments are
bigger than spring; enrollments vary year to year by amounts more
dramatic than in a typical city or town. I’ve used enrollments in
the fall semester of the census year. I think as long as you use
the same standard for each area, the differences factor
I’ve been encouraged to submit this study for publication in an
academic journal, but to do that I’ll have to cite my sources
legibly, rewrite the text from speaker’s notes, and so on.
EXPLAINING THE BLOOMINGTON AREA’S EXPANSION TO THREE COUNTIES
How does one explain the expansion of Bloomington’s metropolitan
area? People who are looking for housing that’s less expensive
than they can find in Monroe County, then commuting back to work
here. It is self-evident what that demographic group is, and where
they work, that could cause that expansion.
CDMs vs FORMER and NON-CDMs
Despite Bloomington’s relative success as an employment center, it
is not exactly a boomtown, either. Decades after the college boom,
the definition of a CDM is that there has been no other apparent
economic influence on the area.
Some of the areas that fell into this demographic category, or
came close, have since outgrown CDM status. While the US grew
about 37% between 1970 and 2000, and the Bloomington area grew
about 42% in that period, Tallahassee has doubled in size since
1970; Austin has quadrupled.
Lincoln, NE, Madison, WI, and the Research Triangle of Raleigh-
Durham- Chapel Hill, NC, all home to major state universities,
came close to college-driven metro status, peaking at about 12.5%
students. Each has virtually doubled in size since 1970. Even the
Big Ten cities of Columbus, OH and Minneapolis, which were never
close to CDM status and both measure their metropolitan
populations in seven figures, yet each have grown more than 50%
Jobs are being created in those places at an alarming rate. They
are economic powerhouses. What do they have in common? They’re not
just home to major public research universities; they’re also
state capitals. The resulting combination provides such economic
stability that these areas are veritable petri dishes for private
job growth. However, while these larger places resemble us to a
great extent, we do ourselves a disservice if we measure
Bloomington against them.
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