For young college grads, why is metro Atlanta no longer the draw it used to be?

Although the city has one of the biggest cohorts of college-educated 25-to-34-year-olds, it hasn’t drawn young grads at the same rate as other major cities

If you were to stroll along the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail on a Friday evening, stop for dinner at Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall, or take in a concert on the lawn at the Fourth Ward Skate Park, you’d be convinced that Atlanta is teeming with young creative and professional types. And if you walked a little farther and saw the apartment  buildings mushrooming along the trail, you’d probably conclude that even more youthful residents are on their way.

But the surge in new, and mostly younger, residents near the heart of the city does not represent what’s happening across the metro region as a whole. Although we still have one of the biggest cohorts of college-educated 25-to-34-year-olds in the country, we have not, through the past decade, drawn young grads at the same rate as other places, such as New York, Boston, Dallas, or even St. Louis or Pittsburgh, according to a study by City Observatory, a think tank bankrolled in part by the Knight Foundation. Indeed, between 2000 and 2012, members of this so-called “young and restless” tribe increased by 33 percent in Buffalo, New York, and 26 percent in Columbus, Ohio, while the rate in metro Atlanta remained virtually flat. At the same time, the overall population of the metro area surged almost 25 percent, which means that the proportion of young, college-educated residents actually declined. Although it’s a small drop, it’s not the kind of trend line any developer, business owner, politician, or university president wants to see.

Illustration by Peter Crowther
Illustration by Peter Crowther

“Atlanta definitely has underperformed and slipped compared to other Sun Belt cities,” says Joseph Cortright, the author of the study. In 2000, Atlanta had slightly more “Y&R” residents than Dallas (260,000 compared with 251,000), but by 2012, Dallas saw a 20 percent increase, compared with Atlanta’s paltry 3 percent.

Why does this matter? The more college grads in a metro area, the healthier the economy. While the college-educated are more likely to move than any other group, they slow down when they hit their mid-30s; 35-year-olds are half as likely to move as 25-year-olds. If Atlanta attracts fewer young college graduates, we will be on track to have fewer settled and educated adults, creating a negative ripple effect on the economy.

Still, it helps to consider the data in context, suggests Atlanta demographer Conor Sen. “The dates selected paint a harsher picture,” he says. Back in 2000, unemployment in metro Atlanta was just 3 percent, making the metro region a magnet for college graduates. During the recession, we crashed hard, with one of the highest unemployment rates and widespread foreclosures; we’re still limping back. “I wonder about the future of some of the industries here,” says Matthew Terrell, who earned an MFA from SCAD-Atlanta and works as a freelance photographer and production assistant. “I know the film and TV industry is huge right now, but that business pops into different parts of the country and then moves on to find someplace cheaper. I wonder how long Georgia has left as a film and TV hub, when you think about the layoffs at Turner.”

Thirty-one-year-old Jessica Hansel bucked the trend, moving back to Atlanta after living in New York and San Francisco. Friends reminded her that life here would be slower. “But it’s grown up a lot,” she says. “When I was here before, the BeltLine wasn’t even a concept, and there weren’t the restaurants there are now.” An advantage of Atlanta remains the lower cost of living. “My rent will be cut in half or more,” Hansel says. “But I don’t expect my salary to be cut in half.”

Of her contemporaries in New York and San Francisco, she says, “Most moved [there] to stay a few years and get job experience that you can’t get anywhere else, but planned to return to where they are from. That’s the plan for a lot of people.”

Which takes us back to Ladybird. Although the metro region as a whole is not drawing this group like it used to, certain parts of town are. Neighborhoods within a three-mile radius of downtown saw the number of millennials with college degrees go up by almost 40 percent. “I don’t know anyone my age living in the suburbs,” Hansel says. “Even friends who have started families are choosing to stay in town. They are willing to be in smaller houses [because] they don’t want that commute.”

So what’s the takeaway for civic leaders? Lure more businesses to where millennials want to live (Cort­right gives a shout-out to Coca-Cola’s decision to open an IT center with 2,000 staffers near downtown) and make it easier for them to get from work to home to where they go out.

Sydia Bell, 28, moved to Atlanta to attend Spelman a decade ago and presumed she’d return to her hometown of New York City. But after transferring to SCAD-Atlanta, where she eventually earned a master’s, she found herself more and more at home here. “Over the past three or four years, I have seen such growth in the city; I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she says. Bell settled in Morningside. “I walk out of my apartment and I like seeing the houses and the lawns and the people pushing baby strollers. I love that; there was nothing like that in New York.”


The drilldown
of metro Atlanta residents in 2012 who were between 25 and 34 and held college degrees.
In 2000, this group represented 6.1% of the area’s population.

number of 25-to-34-year-olds in metro Atlanta’s close-in neighborhoods in 2012, up 39% from 2000’s number of 16,098

of metro Atlanta’s working-age population who were jobless in September, compared with a national average of 5.7%

This article originally appeared in our December 2014 issue under the headline “Deflated Expectations.”