The B.A. Divide
The United States is segregating by education.
Americans are better educated now than ever, but the distribution of people with college degrees is growing increasingly unequal.
And the clustering of people with higher education is creating greater disparities in regional incomes and unemployment. The places with high percentages of educated adults do better economically than do the counties with low proportions of adults with B.A. degrees. Better educated populations have higher incomes and lower unemployment.
The relationship between higher education and prosperity holds true in rural America. The chart above divides rural counties into five categories of average educational attainment -- highest to lowest -- and shows the average individual incomes of each quintile.
Among the top fifth of counties based on college education, average personal income is $36,135. In the bottom fifth of rural counties, based on college education, average income is $26,371.
As the level of education increases among rural counties, so do average per capita wages.
In general, rural areas are falling behind the cities in terms of the percent of their adult populations with at least a college (B.A.) degree. (Scroll down to see maps and lists of the rural counties with the highest and lowest percentage of adults with B.A. degrees.)
In 1990, 23% of adults in urban counties had at least a B.A. degree. The rural rate in that year was 12.4% — approximately half the urban rate.
By 2009, an estimated 29.9% of urban adults had earned at least a B.A. degree. The rate in rural areas had increased to 16.8% of adults. The gap in B.A. attainment between urban and rural counties had increased from 10.6 points to 13.1. (Estimates of county education levels were developed by Economic Modeling Specialists, Inc.)
This education gap among U.S. counties has been growing since the 1970s. The maps below show the distribution of educated adults across every U.S. county.
The red counties have percentages of adults with B.A. degrees lower than the national average. Blue counties have a higher percentage of adults with college degrees than the national average.
The redder the county, the lower the percentage of educated adults. The dark blue counties have the highest percentage of adults with B.A. degrees.
The first map comes from 1990. The next map shows the distribution of college educated adults in 2000. And the final map shows estimates from 2009.
Scroll through the maps. As time passes, a greater proportion of the U.S. landscape is falling behind the national average. Meanwhile, blue areas are getting darker.
Educational attainment predicts local economic success. As the share of the population with a college degree increases, the local unemployment rate decreases.
“There should be nothing surprising about this fact,” writes Harvard University economist Ed Glaeser. “Skills have long been among the best predictors of urban success, as measured by wages, wage growth, population growth and housing price increases.”
That strong relationship between education and economic success remains true in rural America.
(To read more from Glaeser on the relationship between education and economic growth, go here.)
We compared the 204 counties with the highest percentages of adults with B.A. degrees with the 204 counties with the smallest percentage of adults with college degrees. (The top ten percent of the nation’s 2,038 rural counties versus the bottom ten percent.)
The most educated counties had higher incomes than the least educated counties ($37,283 versus $24,605); lower unemployment in July of this year (7.5% versus 12.2%); and a lower poverty rate (12.5% versus 21.1%).
As the country continues to separate by levels of education, it is reasonable to assume that the economic differences from place to place will grow.
This gap has life and death consequences. People with more college degrees live longer than do those who haven’t earned a B.A. And the mortality gap between those with and without college degrees “grew dramatically” between 1960 and 2000, according to a recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Analysis.
(The paper, Working Paper 15678, is titled, “Explaining the Rise in Educational Gradients in Mortality.”)
By 2000, a college-educated 25 year old could expect to live 7 years longer than peers with less education. Researchers could find no behavioral reason for this gap — not a difference in smoking or weight gain, for example.
Education levels are not uniform across rural America. Below are lists of the 50 rural counties with the highest and lowest percentages of adults with college degrees.
The counties with the most educated adult populations are largely found in the Mountain West. In fact, of the ten counties with the fastest growing proportion of college-educated adults, seven can be found in this region.
The rural counties with the smallest percentages of college-educated adults are largely in the South and in Texas.
Here are the 50 rural counties with the highest proportion of adults with college degrees.
And here are the 50 counties with the lowest percentages of college educated adults.
Roberto Gallardo is a research associate at the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University.