People Have Stopped Fleeing Big Cities

Students returning to large campuses helps account for population surges.

People are on the move again, and with that new trends are afoot. A year after migration changes led to residents exiting some of the country’s key metropolitan counties, many are returning, according to the recently released U.S. Census Bureau’s Vintage 2022 estimates.

Among the top two counties—out of the country’s 3,144–experiencing this trend are New York County (Manhattan) in New York and San Francisco County in California. New York had a slight net domestic outflow of 2,908 this year, a sizable turnaround from the outmigration of -98,566 the prior year. In San Francisco, the outmigration hasn’t yet turned positive but is pointed in that direction at -9,421 this year, versus -57,611 a year ago.

“The migration and growth patterns for counties edged closer to pre-pandemic levels this year,” said Dr. Christine Hartley, assistant division chief for estimates and projections in the Census Bureau’s population division, in prepared comments.

The Census Bureau attributed the overall increase to students returning to large universities and colleges after they had headed home for health safety reasons and schools shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic. All 10 of the fastest-growing counties were in the South or West. For example, Whitman County, in Washington, home to Washington State University, experienced a drop by 9.6 % between 2020 and 2021 at the height of the pandemic and then grew by 10.1% last year—the most of any county with a greater than 20,000 population. The university, which has a rural campus of 1,742 acres, counted its undergraduate enrollment at 23,136 and its graduate population at 4,544 students. It is considered a top-tier university for research studies.

Beyond Washington, New York and San Francisco counties, many elsewhere are seeing population bursts, either to near pre-pandemic levels or full recoveries. Dallas County, in Texas, had 22,000 residents leave between 2020 and 2021 but a year later gained nearly 13,000 people, which represented the fastest gains the county has had since 2017. Out West, Maricopa County, in Arizona, remained the largest gaining county in the country, adding 56,831 residents this year, a percentage hike of 1.3 over the prior year. The county with the largest decline this year was Los Angeles, which decreased by 90,704 residents, a trend that continued from the prior year.

In addition to students returning to campus, another noteworthy trend the Census Bureau report highlighted is the reversal of change between small and large counties. At the pandemic’s peak, many small counties witnessed higher levels of outflow migration while their large counterparts saw lower levels. But this reversed between 2021 and 2022. Also, overall, 60% of U.S. counties had positive net domestic migration this year, compared to 63.3% a year ago.