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How Educated Are American City-Dwellers? New Study Reports on Educational Attainment in U.S. Metropolitan Areas

May 10, 2010

The Brookings Institute recently released their report on 'The State of Metropolitan America.' Noting the relationship between higher education, economic prosperity and high standards of living, the study includes a chapter exploring the educational status of adults in American cities and their surrounding suburbs.

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The Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program just released 'The State of Metropolitan America', which reports on their findings from a study of the major demographic transformations in America's metropolitan areas in the first decade of the 21st century. The study gathered data from the 100 largest metro areas in the country, which include the cities, suburbs and immediate surrounding rural areas in which two-thirds of America's population lives and works. The researchers chose to focus on metropolitan areas instead of just core cities because they offer a more accurate reflection of American lives, which often include living in the suburbs and commuting to work in urban areas. As a result, their focus areas are labeled as groupings rather than individual cities, such as the top five (by size):

Metro Area Population
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 19,006,798
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 12,872,808
Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL-IN-WI 9,569,624
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 6,300,006
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 5,838,471

View the full list of metro areas and data indicators by geographic location on the Brookings Institute's interactive map.

The bulk of the study's data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS), which is the largest Census Bureau survey other than the decennial census. About three million households per year respond to the ACS, giving the Brookings Institute's current report a remarkably broad information base. The latest publicly available ACS data is from 2008.

Graduates Are Growing

Educational Attainment is on the Rise

So what changes has the last decade brought for higher ed? Overall, Americans are becoming more educated. The proportion of U.S. adults with 4-year degrees rose from 24% to 28% between 2000 and 2008. However, younger adults - defined as 25-to-34 year olds - aren't keeping up. In spite of a promising study by the Pew Research Center that indicated that the 'Millennials' are on track to becoming the most educated generation in American history, progress toward degree attainment has been slow.

In 2000, the share of 25-to-34 year olds with bachelor's degrees (27.5%) outpaced 35-to-44 year olds (25.9%). This pattern reversed in 2008, with only 29.5% of 25-to-34 year olds reporting holding a 4-year degree, as compared to 30.8% of 35-to-44 year olds. However, almost a quarter of 25-to-34 year olds report having completed 'some college.'

These figures support a growing body of evidence that today's students are taking longer and longer to earn their degrees. This isn't just a problem for parents - it may have long term consequences for our country's economic health. Increased time to degree not only delays students' career progress, it also tends to lead to larger debt for students who can't afford it. A recent study by the National Bureau for Economic Research found that reduced financial resources, both on the part of the student and the education system, seem to be linked to growing delays in degree attainment. Rising tuition costs are forcing many students to work and drop to part-time to finance their education, while struggling schools are being forced to cut classes and other resources that are necessary to guide students toward graduation.

Copyright the Brookings Institute

From 'The State of Metropolitan America', Brookings Institute, page 113.

Although the recession may be making it harder to graduate on time, it's also driving more and more young people back to school. Nationwide, 41% of 18-to-24 year olds were enrolled in a college or university in 2008, up from 34% in 2000. This effect was particularly strong in Northeastern metropolitan areas, such as New England and upstate New York, where over 50% of young adults were enrolled in a postsecondary program in 2008.

Educational Economics

The report suggests two related reasons for the increased interest in higher education over the past decade: An increase in the number of careers that require a college degree and a growing scarcity of lower-level jobs as the labor market struggles to recover from the recession.

In their most recent educational attainment survey, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that, in 2008, the average bachelor's degree holder earned over $27,000 more than the average individual whose highest level of education was a high school diploma. (Salaries were even higher for people with graduate or professional degrees.) The Brookings Institute study found that having a college degree isn't just linked with greater earning power - it can even effect your ability to get a job.

Individuals with a college degree had a good chance of having a job in 2008 almost anywhere: 97 out of 100 of the study's included metropolitan areas had employment rates between 80% and 90% for college-educated adults. However, employment rates varied dramatically between geographic regions for adults with only a high school diploma. In some areas, concentrated primarily in the middle of the country, over 70% of that population was working in 2008. Yet in other areas, particularly the South and West, employment rates were only between 50% and 60% for adults without college degrees.

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'Smart' Cities Getting Smarter

Over the past decade, the number of college-educated adults grew in areas that were already highly educated such as San Francisco, San Diego, Boston and New York. The report suggests that as these areas absorb increasing percentages of the college-educated American population, longstanding attainment differences across metropolitan regions may be 'locked in.'

Areas that have historically had fewer college-educated adults include the Texas border, California's central valley and old industrial centers in the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast. These regions were built on agriculture, manufacturing and other industries that have not traditionally relied on a college-educated workforce. However, many of these industries are no longer productive enough to support a metropolitan region, and the 21st century has seen a move toward a 'knowledge economy' where there are fewer 'blue collar' jobs available and more of them require a degree. As long as the educational attainment gap between metropolitan regions persists, so will the gap in economic prosperity.

While educational attainment trends between regions aren't changing, the distribution of college-educated adults in educated metropolitan areas is shifting. The report found that residents of older suburbs tend to be more highly educated than those living in the core cities: 36% of residents of all high-density suburbs have 4-year degrees and some suburbs such as Cambridge, MA, Bellevue, WA, Sunnyvale, CA and Arlington, VA boast an over 50% rate of college education among their adult population. This appears to come from a loss of college-educated residences in urban areas since 2000, which the Brookings researchers suggest may be due to the fact that the highly educated baby boomer generation has been moving into the suburbs as they age.

Diverse Students

Regional educational attainment gaps aren't the only historical trends that have persisted into the 21st century: Racial and ethnic disparities in educational attainment are also still present in the United States. Overall, 50% of Asians adults and 36% of whites in large metropolitan areas have a college degree, compared with 20% of blacks and 14% of Hispanics.

These rates are not, however, uniform across the country. Certain high-tech metro areas such as Atlanta have higher degree attainment rates for blacks, as do areas like Portland (Oregon), San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix, where racial segregation has historically been as severe as it is in the East. By contrast, metro areas that have a higher concentration of educated Hispanics tend to be east of the Mississippi. These include Midwestern regions around St. Louis and Minneapolis, Northeastern areas such as Baltimore and Boston and Southern areas such as Miami and New Orleans. Nevertheless, even in areas where the gap isn't as severe, racial and ethnic minorities lag behind white adults in educational attainment.

Future of America

The Next Step: How America is Changing

Hoping to make their report useful for policymakers, the Brookings Institute concludes each chapter of 'The State of Metropolitan America' with reflections on what their findings might mean for the future. Looking at higher education patterns across the United States, the Institute found that the greatest challenge lay in educational attainment gaps between regions. They suggest that the recession may leave employment levels permanently lower for workers without an education, particularly in areas like the Rust Belt that have historically relied on a disappearing manufacturing industry.

If state and local governments don't make more of an effort to promote (and financially support) higher education in these areas, they may be facing even further economic decline. Without enough entry-level work or high-paying careers, there may be an exodus of young people seeking education and work opportunities elsewhere. By improving local postsecondary institutions - both in terms of quality and financial aid - these regions can hope to shrink the educational attainment gap and boost their economic futures.

These 'uneven' educational attainment trends are one of five 'new realities' that the Brookings Institute report claims will redefine 'who we are, where and with whom we live and how we provide for our welfare.' The other 'game-changing' 21st century trends in America include:

Growth and outward expansion: The nation's population has passed 300 million and is still growing. Much of this growth is concentrated in large metropolitan areas, which is increasing both urban density and metropolitan sprawl.

Population diversification: Immigration is a major factor in our population growth, and the U.S. today is only two-thirds white. The Brookings Institute predicts that within 30 years America will be facing the transition to becoming a majority non-white country, and that it will happen first in large metro areas.

Population aging: There are now over 100 million baby boomers and seniors, and large metro areas are aging even faster than the rest of the country - they experienced a 45% increase in their 55-to-64 year old population between 2000 and 2008. The nation's healthcare and housing infrastructure must be prepared to support an explosion in the number of elderly individuals dwelling alone and in need of care.

Income polarization: The average American household took a huge hit to its inflation-adjusted income between 1999 and 2008, and incomes are likely to have declined even further in 2009 when the economy 'hit bottom.' As a result, the middle class is disappearing into low-income status while high-wage workers are actually seeing increases in their earnings. The number of large metro area residents living below the poverty line rose 15% between 200 and 2008, at which point high-wage workers out-earned low-wage workers by more than five to one.

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