Tulsa is an extraordinary city.
The Gathering Place, the Arts District, the Market District, Bixby and Owasso: having moved to Washington, D.C., in 2011, and returning a few months ago to Tulsa, the city where I grew up, is to be startled by the growth and ambition of my childhood home.
Without a doubt, Tulsa is moving in the right direction. And it is defying broader demographic trends to do so.
Today, 40% of Americans live within 50 miles of the ocean; nearly 70% of Americans live within 50 miles of an international border. Interior cities like Tulsa have usually struggled and often failed, unless blessed with the good fortune of being a state capitol, which provides a stable base of employment that cannot decamp to California, Mexico, or China. Without this advantage, Tulsa is nonetheless making it.
Much praise is due to city leaders.
But work remains if Tulsa is going to be a truly thriving 21st century city.
Tulsa has grown only modestly over the last decade. The bulk of this growth, according to research done for the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, comes from the surrounding rural counties — like Muskogee County (the largest source of migration into Tulsa) and Cherokee and Payne counties (the next largest sources).
These arrivals are on average less educated than the current Tulsan. To put some numbers on that, in 2017, roughly 27% of new migrants into Tulsa held a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 45% of adults moving to Dallas had a four-year degree or higher, and 40% percent of adults moving to Kansas City were similarly qualified.
More notably, in every year since 2013, there has been a net outflow of college graduates from Oklahoma. Indeed, each year our state loses more college graduates to other states than the University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State University award bachelor’s degrees.
And the problem is seemingly getting worse.
Data on this has only been kept since the year 2000, but the worst five years of net outflow of Oklahoma college graduates has been in the last seven years. While the best data is kept only for the Oklahoma City area, the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce has noted a similar out-migration of the college-educated from this city over the last few years.
Should the city’s focus, therefore, be on getting more Tulsans into degree programs? Yes, absolutely, and I often hear this hope expressed by city leaders.
Producing more college graduates is a contribution to the good of American society. But, alas, it may not be a contribution to the good of Tulsa’s society.
Tulsa’s universities can try to produce more young people with college degrees, but the city’s challenge today is that it just can’t keep those graduates here or even in the state!
We should have no illusions that this effort alone, while worthwhile, will transform our city.
To build a strong Tulsa that not only retains but recruits educated young people, we really need a strong academic research effort, which will be the key node in an innovation network. This network will bring educated young people to Tulsa.
This has been the tried and tested path of cities like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is today home to some of the leading companies in the world like Oracle, Disney, Uber, and Google. These companies were not lured to Pittsburgh by tax incentives, but by the need to be near Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.
You can’t raise your average educational attainment by producing people with college degrees who promptly move to Dallas. We need to be like Pittsburgh or, for that matter, Dallas, and be a draw for highly-educated workers — an importer of talent. And that means university research and development.
A different and more provocative way of thinking about this is: Tulsa doesn’t need its universities to only produce labor; it needs its universities to produce ideas that can be a magnet for labor.
If Tulsa is to be truly successful, I believe that the University of Tulsa, the only research institution in northeast Oklahoma, must be the catalyst. Whether TU can live up to this requirement is my task to show and only time will tell. But a lot more is riding on the outcome — at least in my mind — than the fate of the university alone. We all have a stake in TU’s success.
Brad Carson is the University of Tulsa president, former two-term U.S. congressman for Oklahoma’s 2nd District, former under secretary of the U.S. Army and member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by advisory board members appear in this space most weeks.
Brad Carson is the University of Tulsa president, former two-term U.S. congressman for Oklahoma's 2nd District, former under secretary of the U.S. Army and member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by advisory board members appear in this space most weeks.