AUSTIN - Experts who make a living trying to bring more businesses to large Southern cities are convinced that what it takes is more people who are 25 to 34 years old and have bachelor's degrees. Unfortunately, the number in the Little Rock-North Little Rock area is just a bit lower than the average of 29.2 percent in metropolitan Southern cities.
The Brookings Institute Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy has just made a study that shows that Little Rock-North Little Rock's population contains only 28.1 percent of young people with diplomas.
The cities with the greatest percentages are Raleigh-Durham, N.C, 45.2 percent, and Austin-San Marcos, Texas, 38.9 percent. There are nine other Southern metro areas that have percentages that exceed the national average of 29.2 percent such as Washington, D. C., Atlanta, Richmond-Petersburg, Va., Columbia, S.C, Nashville, Birmingham, etc.
However, Little Rock-North Little Rock's 28.1 percentage is better than you would think. There are many of the big southern cities that rank below us in this count - Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Memphis, Fort Worth-Arlington, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson S.C., Mobile, etc.
Austin is the closest city to Little Rock that proves that the experts are on the right track. Fifty years ago the population was 132,459. Today the city alone has 656,562 persons,. and the estimate when you add the suburbs is 1 million. Down here the people like to say that the increase was as if the entire state of Oklahoma moved to Texas.
As everyone here tells you, the University of Texas in Austin is one of the finest and biggest in the United States. It's because (1) the university owns land full of oil, which pays the university millions of dollars every year and (2) after World War II the state and congressional politicians (including two who became president) finally realized that education was important and did what they had to do to enrich their university, such as making its library the eighth largest in the country.
Not only that but the local politicians and businessmen in Austin joined the effort to make their university and their town the nonconformist kind of place young people would like to live in for four years. . They have done it so well that thousands of UT graduates have stayed in Austin after graduation even if it meant pumping gas or waiting tables.
Looking at these figures, big cities like Cleveland, Boston and Philadelphia are now trying to attract more college graduates. Cleveland is now paying 55 graduates every summer to intern in the city for 10 weeks to meet company presidents and evaluate their city as a place to live and work.
Of course, a town has to have the businesses with job opportunities to attract these young people who usually shove off for New York or San Francisco when they first get that diploma in their hands. Central Arkansas has job opportunities but not enough of the kind that attracts young people in this century. A look at the abandoned buildings in downtown Little Rock and the rest of the county will convince you of that.
The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville is growing in every way and businesses are flowing into Northwest Arkansas. It will be no surprise in not too many years if that part of the state becomes a competitor with places like Austin and even Raleigh-Durham.
But what about Central Arkansas? Its leaders must provide the money to make the University of Arkansas in Little Rock a finer institution, one that will attract more people who for many reasons have to live and study in a metropolitan area.
More taxes? Tax incentives to bring in first-rate companies that will hire more people? (Austin excused property taxes for 10 years for Samsung, which built a chip plant that employs 1,000 people.)
My choice would be a state lottery with all the profit going to education and particularly its universities in Little Rock and Fayetteville. Texas just finished its biggest lottery yet last week - bigger than the $3 billion it took in last year - and 30 cents of every dollar will go to education. Texas is getting bigger because it has gotten smarter.