ITHACA, N.Y. — A real estate market analysis out this month from Apartment List states that from 2005-2015, the millennial population in Tompkins County decreased by 9.7%, even as the overall population increased 5.2% over the same time period. Given the number of young residents in this eternally youthful city, that may come as a surprise.

The data is in contrast with Apartment List’s general summaries – areas that saw a decrease in millennial populations also tended to have a decrease in median income – the “young kids moving to greener pastures” one often sees and hears about in many rust belt towns. However, in the Ithaca metro (which is the defined as Tompkins County), median income increased 10.5% over the time period. The millennial home ownership rate dropped 7.4% nationwide, but in Ithaca the drop was just 0.9%.

Now, as tempting as it might be to just run stats without checking them, we did the legwork and reached out to Apartment List for an explanation. After all, this is a community with tens of thousands of students. Perhaps some students aged out of the parameters Apartment List used to define millennials, and the 18-year olds running around town are simply counted as part of the next generation.

Data scientist Andrew Woo fielded the question. “For this analysis, we’re defining millennials as anyone in the age group 18-34. We look at the population in that age bracket for each year 2005-2015, rather than tracking a single cohort over time (for example, someone who was 34 in 2005 would be counted in the millennial population for that year, but not for 2006). As a result of this methodology, the process you’ve described shouldn’t have an impact on our results.”

So basically, Woo is saying that Apartment List looked at 18-34 year olds in 2005, and the total number of 18-34 year olds in the Ithaca metro (Tompkins County) in 2015, and said they decreased by 9.7%.  Woo emailed a copy of the figures, giving raw calculations of 13,453 18-34 year-olds in Tompkins County in 2005, and 11,006 in 2015.  The raw drop is -18.2%, but then all the metros were weighted +8.5% to account for the overall growth in the population of 18-34 year-olds in the United States, giving -9.7%.

Those raw numbers set off a mental alarm bell. As of 2015, Cornell, Ithaca College and TC3 had a combined enrollment of over 33,000 students at their Ithaca-area campuses – a large portion of which probably fall in the age range of 18-34. Local enrollment grew by 2,000 during the 2005-2015 time period, largely due to growth at Cornell. Given this fact-check failure, the article languished here for a few days, and then Apartment List released an addendum to their statistical methods. The millennials being counted, were millennial heads-of-household.

That makes the statistics a lot murkier for a college town like Ithaca. There are plenty of students who live off campus (a growing number at that). But when it comes to defining details like head-of-household status, and whether or not parents are claiming students on taxes…well, things get complicated.

Given Ithaca’s collegiate nature, where many millennials aren’t heads of their households, Apartment List’s statistics on the number of millennials living in the Ithaca metro just aren’t very useful. There could be a rapid greying of the permanent population underway, and a loss of young families and professionals, but Apartment List’s study doesn’t provide enough evidence to support those conclusions. We would first need to determine and separate student residences who aren’t the heads of their households.

As for the growth in median income, the inflation adjusted annual median wage went from about $52,556 in 2005 to $58,084 in 2015. These numbers come from annual updates to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, and they pass inspection.

However, the millennial home ownership rate is suspect, not because of Apartment List’s reported value of -0.9%, but because we run into head of household question again – if a parent buys the house the millennial lives in, for instance. But keep in mind, the demographically transient and relatively expensive nature of Tompkins County housing makes it a very rental-focused housing market – 56% percent of the county, and 73% of the city’s households are renters. Looking at home owning millennial households is a small slice of a small slice of the pie, not really useful for determining market and demographic trends in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at two other northeastern college towns. Burlington, Vermont was reported to have a 3.4% increase in millennial heads-of-house, with a 5.9% increase in median income and 7.1% drop in millennial home ownership. State College, Pennsylvania was more like Ithaca – a 8.5% decrease in millennials, 20.7% increase in median income and 4.5% decrease in millennial home ownership.

But, off-the-cuff, their results should be approached with caution just like Ithaca’s. Small college-focused metros are not good pairings with this analysis. In conclusion, statistics are wonderful, but context is everything.

Brian Crandall

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