Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Local newspaper readers might have been surprised and delighted to read a report last week that San Antonio “had the second fastest-growing population of millennials among the nation’s top 100 metro areas from 2010 to 2015, bested only by Colorado Springs.”
The lengthy news feature, written by San Antonio Express-News reporter Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje, attributed the 14.4 percent rate of growth in the local millennial population to the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
That statistic seemed eerily familiar to me, and with good reason. The Rivard Report cited the same statistic in June 2017, nearly two years ago, in an article shared by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, which identified the growth largely in the city’s suburbs rather than its urban core, the focus of the Express-News article.
Glissette Santana, Kinder’s web and social media editor, cited a May 2017 Urban Land Institute report, “The 25 Suburbs Where Millennials are Moving.”
Journalism is driven by daily deadlines, and every publication I’ve ever worked at has inadvertently published recycled data. That’s as true at the Rivard Report as it is at the Express-News.
Less than one year after we republished the Kinder Institute article, Emily Royall, at the time the data director at the Rivard Report, came across the very same Brookings report cited by Stoeltje, which actually was published in January 2018. Royall, who now works as the smart city coordinator in the City of San Antonio’s Department of Innovation, published her own story soon after the report’s release.
Royall’s story cited an important statistic found in the Brookings report: Nearly 60% of San Antonio’s millennial population is Hispanic, much of it homegrown or drawn to the city from South Texas and the border. Like the overall adult population, the percentage of college-education millennials in the city is only about 30%, trailing other cities where millennial growth is tied more directly to smart job growth.
Both the Brookings and Urban Land Institute studies are based on the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey (ACS) for the five-year period from 2011-15. While the U.S. Census is conducted once every decade, and will next occur in 2020, the ACS is conducted annually. Its mid-decade findings are studied closely by demographers for significant trends.
So the numbers in play now already are dated. That’s not to say San Antonio is not attracting more and more college-educated millennials, both young people who left the city to attend university and are returning home, as well as newcomers. But the total numbers do not place us in the first rank of U.S. cities attracting highly educated workers returning or moving here to take smart jobs. Consider that Austin is home to the second-largest concentration of Apple, Google, and Facebook workers, trailing only the headquarter locations for those tech companies.
Austin’s incubator remains the University of Texas, one of the country’s great public urban universities. Among San Antonio’s many strengths is the fast-growing and fast-improving University of Texas at San Antonio. What leading city doesn’t have a strong urban university as part of its core?
The transformative plan launched under President Taylor Eighmy to expand UTSA’s Downtown Campus holds the potential to give the city exactly what it needs to effectively incubate the same kind of workforce: a Tier One university whose students will experience life in San Antonio’s urban core, with many wanting to find a good job and remain here after graduation. Too many UTSA undergraduates now reside for four years or more in San Antonio without spending significant time in the urban core and thus fail to develop a lasting attachment to the city.
Elected officials and business leaders can help Eighmy and others by supporting his vision rather than resting on laurels and deceiving themselves and others into believing we are “Millennial City USA.” Claiming that status is not unlike the popular sloganeering that “San Antonio is the nation’s seventh-largest U.S. city” or “San Antonio is the nation’s fastest-growing city.”
Thanks to the way city limits are drawn, we are those things. But if accuracy matters, San Antonio is better described as the 24th-largest metropolitan statistical area (MSA), while Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington is the nation’s fastest-growing MSA, according to a 2018 U.S. Census report.
Numbers and words can be fashioned to communicate messages that are true, in the chamber of commerce sense of the word, yet misleading, in the journalistic sense of the word. More importantly, cities whose leaders look in the mirror to admire a distorted image are only fooling themselves.
In the long run, San Antonio is better served by its leaders identifying its strengths and recognizing its weaknesses, and then acting to bolster the former and address the latter. That includes those of us who report on cities and urban trends.