Educational attainment rates – ie. the highest level of education completed by an individual – among 25- to 29-year-olds are rising in the US. Between 2000 and 2017, the percentage with a bachelor’s or higher degree increased from 29 to 36 percent, and the percentage with a master’s or higher degree increased from five to nine percent, according to data from the National Center of Education Statistics.
But that’s not the whole story. Behind these positive figures is the worryingly uneven distribution of Americans with and without a college degree.
“Rural areas tend to have low overall attainment, whereas urban areas tend to have the largest racial attainment gaps,” said the new report from the Center for American Progress. The accompanying interactive map, Who Is Left Behind?, can be found here.
For example, Lee County located in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, is an example of a rural area with few options for tertiary education. Around 10,000 people live here today and nearly a quarter do so in poverty. Only 13 percent of adults have an associate degree or higher.
The population here is declining due to the lack of work opportunities. Source: Shutterstock
While 93 of the top 100 US counties are either urban or suburban, they also have some of the largest attainment gaps by race. This includes some of the US’s largest cities, including New York (56 percent), Denver (47 percent), San Francisco (44 percent), Boston (42 percent), Atlanta (41 percent), Los Angeles (35 percent) and Chicago (32 percent).
In Washington DC, for example, the gap is a striking 62 percent. Here, three times as many white adult residents in the nation’s capital hold a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to black adults.
“Those without a degree have not shared in the economic boom that has occurred in the District over the past decade. This is in part due to the huge influx of college-educated young adults into the District, most of whom are white,” the center explained. “Washington also has extremely low access to affordable colleges, especially those that are open enrollment.”
Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Campbell, Director for Postsecondary Education at the Center, said: “State legislators really need to think about the geographies of their states. Do they want college to be accessible to everyone in their state?”
“We need multiple pathways. A lot of this is about operating outside of higher education.”
As the debate about student debt and college affordability takes centre stage in US politics, the report cautions against ignoring the role geography plays in ensuring every American receives the long-term benefits of a college education.
“The payoff for future investments must be felt broadly and, in particular, should lift up those who have been pushed to the margins for too long,” writes the report.
American Community Survey data aggregated from 2013 to 2017 was used to show how each of the roughly 3,220 counties in the US and Puerto Rico stack up in terms of degree attainment for adults.