ITHACA, N.Y. — In reports released last week, Ithaca was ranked the #4 college town in the nation, and Tompkins County was ranked second per capita for business investments in New York State.

We know, we know, these lists are a dime per dozen. But seeing as that they came out fairly recently, and they highlight different local assets, it’s worth a brief write-up.

The college town report, called the “College Destinations Index”, comes from the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), a non-partisan, non-profit economic research group.  Criteria for the student-geared analysis included non-student education levels, traffic/transit access, racial and economic diversity, arts and entertainment, restaurants/bars, youth unemployment, labor-force participation, innovation (which appears to be a measure of science/tech jobs, a.k.a. STEM) and property rent. The goal was to quantify economic climate, demographics and overall quality of life. The list was split in four categories, with Ithaca in the “college town” category, defined as metro areas with 100,000-250,000 residents. Places like Madison and Ann Arbor weren’t on the towns list, as they are larger metros and ranked in a different category.

To quote AIER’s write-up about the city of gorges:

“An idyllic home for first-wave hippies and Cornell students, Ithaca sits on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. It is the largest city around the Finger Lakes, yet the second smallest of all of our college towns. Ithaca is home to art-house cinemas, great eateries, and college pubs. Over half of the population of this college town has at least a BA, and for its size, it’s fairly diverse. It is common to see people getting around without a car. However, low labor-force participation could warn of an adverse labor market after graduation.”

In AIER’s study, Ithaca’s worst rankings were in labor-force participation (19th) and arts and entertainment (14th). The city fared best with educational attainment (2nd) and city access (4th, which appears to be because a large portion of the city walks or bikes to work). Boulder was ranked first overall.

The somewhat cynical kicker to all this is, it looks like there were only 20 communities in the College Towns study, and 75 total. There are 353 metropolitan areas in the United States that would qualify for this study. They made a subset, split it by population size, and and ranked the subsets. If the Visitor’s Bureau wants to brag, they’re welcome to, but this isn’t exactly the exhaustive outputs of Sperling’s.

ithaca tompkins skyline shot

Meanwhile, on the more business-focused side of listicle community-ranking, there are new rankings released by SmartAsset, an internet personal finance company based in New York City. Here, the study was “Places With the Most Incoming Investments”.

“Our study aims to capture the places across the country that are receiving the most incoming investments in business, real estate, government and the local economy as a whole,” says the company on their study’s interactive webpage.

According to SmartAsset, Tompkins County is 2nd per capita out of the New York State’s 62 counties. Nationwide, Tompkins ranked 386th of 3,144 counties/county equivalents, or just outside the top ten percent. Saratoga County was number one in New York State by a slight margin, and all the other counties in New York’s top ten were downstate. The top-ranked nationally were North Dakota fracking boomtowns and affluent counties in large metropolitan areas.

For their study, SmartAsset looked at the change in number of businesses established over a three-year period, county gross domestic product growth (inflation adjusted), residential building permits as a proportion of existing units, and federal funding for business contracts and municipal investments. These were compiled into an “Incoming Investment Index” and ranked on a 0-100 scale.

Tompkins County scored high in new residential building permits and business growth, while GDP growth appeared to be the relative weak spot. Worth noting, the ranking is a marked increase from 2016 (16th of the state’s 62 counties) and 2015 (29th of 62).

There doesn’t appear to be a lot to pick on from a methodology standpoint, but it’s worth noting that to be second place in New York only required an index score of 37.26. To be in the top 1% of the country only required a value of about 0.65.

Make of it what one will, but apparently the data has enough weight that Saratoga County’s economic development entity was touting it in email blasts. Saratoga is in the middle of an economic boom brought by suburban fringe growth out of the Capital Region, as well as the state-of-the-art Global Foundaries computer chip plant and satellite businesses that cater to it.

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at