Madison is smarter than Boulder!

How do we measure the smarts of the cities we live in? By percentages, by sheer numbers?

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy points out that Boulder, CO made Forbes magazine’s top spot in their America’s Smartest Cities article. It even managed to maintain this spot since last year despite the fact that Phil moved out there! (J/K) My new home of Madison, however, was way down in slot #21. I find this interesting, because Middleton (an extended suburb of Madison) made it as the #1 place to live in the U.S. according to Money Magazine last year (Madison had this spot in 1996, and still ranks high), UW-Madison consistently maintains its spot as the fourth-largest research university in the country, (where’s the University of Colorado at Boulder, hmm?), and Mad City is also known as the Miracle in the Midwest for its growing biotech industry. (Here are more cool stats)

I thought it was interesting to note that what Forbes was measuring was not a weighted calculation of different factors that may be used to determine the overall brainpower of the city, but instead merely the percentages of bachelors degrees. They threw in the percentages of Ph.D’s and professional degrees for reference, along with the high school graduation rates.

Here’s the breakdown on the percentages of bachelor’s degrees:

Madison: 37.50%

Boulder: 52.92%

Interestingly, if you’ll note, the populations of each city are vastly different. Boulder comes in at 279,897, and Madison at 534,567, according to their numbers. Multiply that out and you get your number of residents with Bachelor’s Degrees:

Madison: 37.50 * 534,567 = 200,463

Boulder: 52.92 * 279,897 = 148,121

Not so smart now, eh? 🙂 That’s a difference of an entire population of my hometown of Petaluma, CA (or previous residence of Davis, CA) of people with bachelor’s degrees!

Multiplying out the other percentages given we have Ph.D’s at:

Madison: 2.51% * 534,567 = 13,417

Boulder: 3.97% * 279,897 = 11,112

Professional degrees:

Madison: 14,647

Boulder: 8,788

There’s a wrinkle in this fabric, though, and that is where Forbes got its demographics information from. The city of Madison only had about 223,000 residents in 2007, but they report it as being over 500,000 – which means that they are including the surrounding cities, towns, neighborhoods, etc. Boulder came in at only about 91,000, whereas they are being reported as having almost 280,000 people by Forbes.

What Forbes is doing is taking the data for the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and applying it to the individual cities. I’m not sure how exactly this affects the percentages they’re reporting, but when over half of the people reported don’t even live in the city, how can you say anything about how smart the city is? (There aren’t even 500,000 people in Dane County, where Madison is!)

They used a service called Sperling’s Best Places to compare each city. (You can enter a city and click on its metropolitan area, which is where they seem to get their numbers from, although they’re a little off.) Here’s the Madison-Boulder comparison, and the education comparison.

With the actual city data from Sperling’s, Boulder still comes out as having a higher percentage of bachelor’s degrees:

Madison: 27.53% * 223,389 = 61,499

Boulder: 36.46% * 91,481 = 33,354

But Madison, as you can see, still has more people with bachelor’s degrees, (almost twice as many) and if you run the numbers, has 20,000 more people with graduate degrees (47627 vs 27554). ‘Course if we were to just use raw numbers, the bigger city will always win.

The data is simple and fairly clear, but what to make of it is not clear. As Madison and Boulder are both great places to live, virtually equally green and outdoorsy cities, home to top-notch research and educational facilities, etc etc, we’ll need a tie-breaker.

Well, the median home cost in Madison is $257,000, and the median home cost in Boulder is $660,000. If you’re a grad student looking to have a home and not be a perpetual renter, Madison comes off as smart, very smart. There’s a lot of subjectivity involved in the final decision, methinks.

Boulder sounds like a nice place to be, I hope my travels take me through there, and I hope Phil will consider swinging through Madison sometime!

(Madison could use some nearby national parks and towering mountainous scenery, though. We should build some…)

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

2 thoughts on “Madison is smarter than Boulder!”

  1. Well, there is some woo in Madison too.

    I don’t know how they would compare, though. We should do a “Worst Woo City” comparison! I wouldn’t even know where to begin… largest chiropractor-to-citizen ratio?


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