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Schools' location important in ranking attractiveness

March 13, 2008

Peter Key, Philadelphia Business Journal


The Philadelphia region placed 12th among the country's 22-largest metro areas on a ranking that measures how attractive an area is to college students. 

The College Destination Index, or CDI, measures regions on 12 dimensions, including not only the variety of local academic resources, but also factors such as job opportunities, salary potential and quality of life. 

Philadelphia scored below Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington. It also had a lower index score than Minneapolis-St. Paul and Houston. 

According to the index, Philadelphia's best competitive advantage is city accessibility, which is defined as the percentage of workers who use public transportation, a bicycle or their feet to get to work. Philadelphia ranked sixth with 13.3 percent of workers falling into that category, compared with New York at No. 1 with 38.5 percent. 

Philadelphia took a hit in the category of entrepreneurial activity, where it ranked only 20th. Entrepreneurial activity is a measure devised by the National Policy Research Council to show the best places to start and grow businesses. 

The CDI was compiled by Collegia, a Wellesley, Mass.-based company that helps areas market themselves to college students and their parents. 

Locally, the group works with Campus Philly, a Center City-based nonprofit that tries to get young people to come to the region for college and remain after they graduate. 

Campus Philly's executive director, Jon Grabelle Herrmann, said he's not concerned about Philadelphia's so-so rank. 

"Regardless of how this study decided our ranking based on this set of attributes, there's no doubt that Philadelphia's a great place to go to college," he said. 

Spokespeople for colleges and universities in the city think Philadelphia is a positive for them. 

Temple, St. Joseph's and La Salle universities have seen dramatic increases in recent years in the number of students wanting to live on or near their campuses due to their urban locations. 

"Urban universities are hot," said Mark Eyerly, Temple University's associate vice president of communications. 

Collegia released the index prior to the 2007-2008 school year. It's the company's second such ranking; the first came out before the 2003-2004 school year. 

"We fine-tuned it for this round," said Todd Hoffman, Collegia's founder and president. Among the changes Collegia made was to group regions into categories by population size. 

Hoffman decided to compile the index because he thinks prospective students and their parents consider three major things when choosing a school -- its reputation, its price and its location -- and there is much less information available about the third than there is about the first two. 

Many college seniors surveyed by Collegia have said that if they had known about their college in high school what they knew about it after spending three-plus years there, they might have gone somewhere else, Hoffman said. 

Since colleges and universities provide ample information about life on their campuses, Hoffman decided instead to focus on the areas surrounding them. 

Philadelphia fared best in quality of life measures, coming in sixth in city accessibility, ninth in arts and leisure and creative class and 11th in cost of living. 

Under academic environment, it was ninth in student concentration, 10th in research capacity and degree attainment and 12th in student diversity. 

But the city's position was hurt most by its rank in professional opportunity measures. In addition to being 20th in entrepreneurial activity, the city was 16th in unemployment and 13th in brain drain (see box, "Bye Bye Brains"). 

The region shouldn't get upset about its ranking, said David Thornburgh, who headed what is now the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia when it helped start some of the programs now managed by Campus Philly. 

The categories in which the area fared poorly show what it needs to address, but the fact that the region has an organization like Campus Philly trying to get young people to attend college here and stick around after graduating is a big plus, said Thornburgh, who is working on a project with Hoffman. 

"We're playing this game more effectively and more aggressively than anyone else in the country," he said.