College Degree Gap Widens

In many ways, rural America has caught up with the rest of the United States in terms of educational achievement. But over the past 40 years, the gap in the percentage of adults with college degrees has increased between urban and rural counties.

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Despite a near three-fold increase in the percentage of rural adults who have college degrees, the gap in bachelor degrees between the cities and rural America has widened between 1970 and 2010.

In 1970, there was a 6-point difference between urban and rural counties in the percent of people over 25 years of age who had college degrees. (Rural stood at 5.7 percent; urban was 11.6 percent.) 

By 2010, the gap was nearly 15 points, as shown in the chart above.

The Daily Yonder and the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University set out to measure the changes in educational achievement in rural America over the last 40 years. We found that on most measures, rural America has caught up with the cities. The increases in educational attainment among rural adults over the last 40 years have been astounding.

But, when it comes to college-educated adults, urban counties have increased their advantage.

The chart above shows the percentage of adults with at least a BA degree in urban, rural and micropolitan counties since 1970. (Micropolitan counties have small urban areas, between 10,000 and 50,000, so they are labeled “small cities” on the charts.) The gap between urban counties and small cities and rural counties has grown.

The loss of young, well-educated residents is a long-standing problem for rural communities. 

“’One of the problems that rural areas face is that in order to get a college education, young people have to leave,” says Judith Stallman, an economist at the University of Missouri. “Once you leave, that introduces you to other opportunities that you might not have seen had you not left.”

The good news for rural America is that it has caught up in every other measure of education.

Below is a chart showing the percentage of adults in the U.S. and in rural counties who have obtained some kind of education after high school. Rural counties lagged the U.S. average for much of the last 40 years. But between 2000 and 2010, rural America caught up.

Southern Rural Development Center
Rural America and the rest of the country now have the same percentage of adults with some post high school education (but no BA degree).

In 1970, 7.8 percent of adults in rural counties had some education after high school, but less than a college degree. By 2010, 27.4 percent of adults had some post high school education, less than a percentage point difference from the U.S. average.

Southern Rural Development Center
Rural counties now have about the same percentage of adults with less than a high school education as the rest of the U.S.

In 1970, six out of ten adults (60%) in rural counties had less than a high school education. That number has plummeted to 18.9 percent, just above the national average of 15 percent.

Both of these numbers are too high. But Stallman points out that rural’s higher number is probably a reflection of its older population.

Finally, the chart below looks good for rural counties, but probably isn’t. It shows the percentage of adults with high school diplomas.

Southern Rural Development Center
Rural counties have a higher percentage of adults with only high school diplomas.

Rural counties in 1970 were considerably below the national average, catching up in 1980.

But as more college educated people accumulated in cities, the relative percentage of those with only a high school degree declined nationally. In rural communities, the percentage of those with high school diplomas increased. The gap in college educated adults between rural and the U.S. average is mirrored in a reverse gap in high school graduates.

Overall, Stallman says, the trends show that “rural people have responded to the demand for increased job skills by the increasing their post secondary education.” 

Rural communities have caught up with the rest of the country in every way except in the percentage of adults with college degrees.

In an upcoming Yonder article, we’ll discuss why this is happening and what it means for local rural economies.

Roberto Gallardo is an assistant extension professor at the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University. Bill Bishop is co-editor of the Daily Yonder.

 

Topics: Education
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