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Sunday, September 25th, 2011

A Decade in College Degree Attainment


Metro area college degree attainment, 2010

This week the Census Bureau released its 2010 data from the American Community Survey. The ACS is what contains many of the core demographic characteristics that are frequently opined upon, such as college degree attainment, commute times, etc.

It used to be that the Census Bureau collected this information during the decennial census using the so-called “long form” that went to one out of every ten households. But that was discontinued as of this census and has been replaced with with the ACS. The ACS reports data more frequently (annually for geographies larger than a certain size), but has a smaller sample size and so there’s lot of statistical noise that I don’t think we are used to dealing with yet. For example, in 2008 the Indianapolis metro area ranked #3 in the US for growth in college degree attainment over the course of the decade to date among metros greater than one million people. But in the 2010 data Indy ranked #28 on the same measure. There are fluctuations year to year and the margin of error needs to be accounted for in serious statistical analysis. Nevertheless, this is what we have to work with.

I’m going to roll out a series of posts covering the highlights of some of this data. I’ll start with educational attainment, since that is something that is so key to upward social mobility and urban economic success.

But first I’ll put in a brief plug for my Telestrian tool. The Census Bureau site for distributing this data is a disaster. As one Brookings senior fellow put it, “Lots of Census data yesterday, today. Lots of angles, stories, conclusions. One shared sentiment: new American Factfinder is AWFUL” and “New Factfinder making mainframe punchcards look appealing.” Telestrian is designed for very rapid basic analysis and comparative benchmarking moreso than simple fact lookups (though it can do that do). In fact, I generated every table, graph and map in this post in ten total minutes with it. Even if you aren’t in the market for a commercial product, there’s a no credit card required free trial period, so if you are interested in perusing the ACS data and don’t want to beat your head against the wall with the Census Factfinder, I encourage you to check it out. Telestrian doesn’t have every data element, but it has a lot of interesting stuff.

College Degree Attainment

College degree attainment (the percentage of adults with a bachelors degree or higher), is one of the most critical factors in urban success. If you’d like to know more, just check out all the great research on it under the heading of “talent dividend” over at CEOs for Cities.

The map at the top of the post is 2010 college degree attainment for metro areas. Here are the top ten, among those with a population greater than one million, showing total number of people with degrees and the attainment percentage:


Row Metro Area 2010
1 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 1,758,297 (46.8%)
2 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 558,519 (45.3%)
3 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 1,317,354 (43.4%)
4 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 1,335,276 (43.0%)
5 Raleigh-Cary, NC 301,012 (41.0%)
6 Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 429,163 (39.4%)
7 Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO 651,661 (38.2%)
8 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 822,321 (37.9%)
9 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 867,193 (37.0%)
10 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 4,613,445 (36.0%)

And here’s the bottom ten:


Row Metro Area 2010
1 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 499,663 (19.5%)
2 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 278,387 (21.6%)
3 Memphis, TN-MS-AR 209,987 (25.1%)
4 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 344,247 (25.4%)
5 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 224,392 (25.8%)
6 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 513,182 (26.2%)
7 Birmingham-Hoover, AL 198,856 (26.3%)
8 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 209,916 (26.8%)
9 Jacksonville, FL 241,801 (26.9%)
10 Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 731,643 (27.2%)

While we are on the topic, here is a map of college degree attainment by state:


State college degree attainment, 2010

And here is county level college degree attainment for those counties covered by the 1-year ACS:


County college degree attainment, 2010

Changes in College Degree Attainment

Beyond just the raw 2010 numbers, it’s interesting to look at which places are growing their college degree attainment the most. That is, which places are growing their talent base. So here’s a look at metros by their change in college degree attainment over the last decade:


Change in percentage of adults with college degrees, 2000-2010.

Some places already have very high college degree attainment, which can make it tougher to grow even higher. Speaking of which, the US as a whole raised its college degree attainment as well. To some extent, this is purely a function of demographics. Older generations have lower educational levels than younger ones. (None of my grandparents had a college degree, and my father’s parents never even finished high school. I don’t think that was atypical for their day).

What might be more interesting to look at is whether places are increasing their college degree attainment faster or slower than the US overall. There’s a measure that does capture that. It’s called location quotient, and is used in economic analysis to measure the concentration of industries in certain locations.

An economist told me once that he likes to look at this for all sorts of things, not just industry clusters. The formula works for other stuff. I really haven’t seen this used before, so caveat emptor, but here’s a look at shifts in location quotient for metro areas over the course of the decade:


Metro area change in location quotient for college degree attainment, 2000-2010. Increase in LQ in blue, decrease in red.

The blue metro areas had a higher concentration of college degrees relative to the nation as a whole in 2010 than they did in 2000. The red ones a lower concentration. This is certainly an interesting area for further exploration.

While I’m on the topic, here’s the same chart, only limited to graduate and professional degrees. There’s some interesting variability here.


Metro area change in location quotient for graduate and professional degree attainment, 2000-2010. Increase in LQ in blue, decrease in red.

A Closer Look at Indianapolis

Just as one more granular example, I wanted to take a look at the Indianapolis vertical. Here’s 2010 college degree attainment for the city, metro, state, and America as a whole:


College degree attainment, 2010

As we know, urban regions tend to be more highly educated. Here we see that while Indiana is one of the lowest states in terms of college degree attainment, the Indy metro area actually beats the US average. However, the city of Indianapolis falls short of the US average. Because Indy is a consolidated city-county government that includes a lot of inner ring suburban areas, it’s hard to draw conclusions about the true urban core, but it does seem clear that the center is less educated than the periphery of the metro.

Now lets look at the change in attainment for the decade:


Change in the percentage of adults with a college degree, 2000-2010.

Here we see that the rich get richer, as Indy metro not only started out on a higher base, but had the best showing in attainment growth as well. OTOH, going back to our LQ measure, Indiana actually boosted its LQ while the Indy region was stagnant. That’s because this is a percentage point change, not a percentage change, and growing from a low base makes it easier to boost LQ. It’s one of the quirks of that formula.

The poor showing of the city of Indianapolis is something that should definitely be worrying. It would be interesting to do a similar analysis for other metros, but alas that’s all for today.

17 Comments
Topics: Demographic Analysis, Education, Talent Attraction
Cities: Indianapolis

17 Responses to “A Decade in College Degree Attainment”

  1. Wad says:

    The Inland Empire leading the bottom 10 of college degree attainment is a source of much chagrin for San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

    The Inland Empire exhibits the same problems as the other fast-growing inland California counties: very few high-value jobs that make use of college degrees, with the exception of government and healthcare. It’s exacerbated by the fact that each county has a four-year state university.

    The western parts of the county send their educated workers to L.A., Orange or even San Diego counties. It’s a tragedy, though, for the remote desert communities that have surprisingly large populations for their size (Barstow, Blythe et al).

  2. Matthew Hall says:

    The continued appeal of the older industrial “river cities” cincinnati, st. louis, and pittsburgh to the more educated must explain some part of why these metros haven’t followed the path of the older industrial great lakes cities of buffalo, cleveland, detroit, and milwaukee into more serious decline. But, what has made the river city metros more appealing to the educated in the first place? Pittsburgh has eds and meds and some R&D, cincinnati has headquarters, R&D, and specialized manufacturing while St. louis has a combination of all three. Does metro economic structure explain the bulk of this?

  3. Eric says:

    Just to be argumentative, Matthew, my perception is that Milwaukee is performing pretty well relative to Cinci and St. Louis. Can’t say why, though. I just don’t believe it has much in common with Detroit or Cleveland.

    My personal bet on why Pittsburgh and Cinci *look* pretty good is that the geography limits sprawl somewhat and remained fairly intact after the 70′s and 80′s were over. Detroit and Cleveland just spread out.

  4. DBR96A says:

    Pittsburgh is the only MSA with 1,000,000+ population to achieve the maximum location quotient. The “eds and meds” certainly help, but it’s a lot more than just that. Research and development has always been a major factor, and so has engineering. The Pittsburgh MSA has more nuclear engineers per capita than any other, and Westinghouse Electric has been hiring since they’ve received dozens of contracts for nuclear power plants all over the world. There’s lots of pharmaceutical (Bayer, Mylan) and high-tech (Google, Intel) research and development going on. Finance is increasingly becoming a factor too, with PNC growing, and BNY Mellon locating its prime operations there.

    Demographic phasing is also a factor. Among all MSAs with 1,000,000+ population, Pittsburgh always comes in around mid-pack in terms of educational attainment, but it’s simply an average of two extremes. The 55+ age segment in the Pittsburgh MSA is college-educated at a rate well below the national average, and the 25-44 age segment is college-educated at a rate well above the national average. (It’s about average in the 45-54 age segment.) As the older generations move on with time, Pittsburgh will rocket up the educational-attainment lists in the near future. Expect Pittsburgh to graduate to a leader in this category by 2020.

  5. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, I suspect the grad/undergrad differences obvious in the Indiana maps is related to the “migration flow” narrative you’ve developed for Indiana:

    People move from the small towns to Indy after they earn a degree. Then they move from Indy to Chicago and other larger cities to further their careers.

    Out-migrants are replaced by more incoming graduates with undergrad degrees; they may go on to grad school elsewhere after leaving, or they may leave after earning an advanced degree. Either way, it helps to explain growth in undergrad degree-holders and slower grad-degree growth than national average.

  6. Matthew Hall says:

    I’m not so familiar with Pittsburgh, but Cincinnati and St. Louis are very sprawling and surprisingly low density as metros, so I don’t think that is it. I wonder if something about their history has created more economically balanced or diverse metros in the river cities than in the great lakes. The river cities are older and didn’t put all their eggs in one basket (heavy industry) as the great lakes cities did. Is the legacy of this still at work? By the recent income, tax, job and housing market numbers, all these cities should be in similar situations economically, but they continue to follow two distinctive paths, including in terms of level of education as described here. Does long past economic history still matter somehow in the dynamics of metros?

  7. Gretel says:

    Pittsburgh most certainly did put all it’s eggs in one basket (steel making) for decades.

    The Google office in Pittsburgh employs about 100 people.

  8. Chris Barnett says:

    Gretel, Pgh was pretty much out of the steelmaking business by the mid-80s. They’re in the fourth decade of post-industrial development. That is considerably different than Detroit.

  9. Brian Cook says:

    Looking at the College Degree Attainment by State reminds me of the recent Life Expectancy map published just a few days ago. Interesting correlation!

  10. Alon Levy says:

    re: various Midwestern cities:

    Here’s real per capita income growth, 2000-9, from the BEA (this is equal to nominal growth divided by 1.2459):

    US average: 4.9%

    Cincinnati MSA/CSA: -2%
    Cleveland MSA/CSA: -1.6%/-1.4%
    Detroit MSA/CSA: -9.7%/-9.9%
    Milwaukee MSA/CSA: 2.3%/2%
    Pittsburgh MSA/CSA: 9.8%/9.9%
    St. Louis MSA/CSA: 3%

    St. Louis’s growth surprises me. It’s anemic by national standards, but I expected it to be negative.

  11. DBR96A says:

    Looks like Pittsburgh is shrinking but getting richer.

  12. Chris Barnett says:

    DBR96A: it’s what you’ve pointed out previously. Pgh’s older, less-educated (former steelworkers) are dying or moving out. The smaller number of people who do move in are clearly better educated and have higher incomes. It’s gentrification writ large.

    It will be interesting to watch as an economist and community-development professional. I can’t think of another case like this in the US. I wonder if there are lessons that could be applied to Gary or Detroit.

    Perhaps Alon can suggest an analog from elsewhere in the developed world: shrinking metro population looks bad but the metro comes up good on most other significant economic measurements of long-term promise.

  13. Matthew Hall says:

    Alon, CSAs are just too large to be useful measures of most things. The lack of difference between the MSA and CSA measures suggests this. As far as MSA numbers, the relationship between overall population and per capita income seems clear. Cincinnati had significantly more population growth at 6% than any of the other MSAs you mention. Pittsburgh and cleveland had 3% declines, in their MSAs. St. Louis had 4.5% growth.

    Viewed in relation to the income numbers you posted, this is consistent with more lower income people dying or leaving pittsburgh and cleveland than in cincinnati. Higher income people are coming to Pittsburgh to replace only part of them, but the same does not appear to be happening in Cleveland. This suggests that St. Louis may really be doing better than the others in attracting higher wage people with its unique combination of population growth and income growth.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    I’ll look through Telestrian later to confirm this, but from the data I have seen, the correlation between population and income growth looks weak, despite fast income growth in Pittsburgh and Upstate New York. This is for three reasons:

    1. In New York State the effect of migration on income is practically zero (in fact, 0.1% in the opposite direction, i.e. migration reduced state income a bit). In California, it is small (1%). In Texas, the final state I checked, it is also small (1%). See analysis here.

    2. Small Northeastern metro areas are seeing fast income growth even without population loss – for examples, Providence and Hartford.

    3. This association between population loss and income growth is only apparent in the Northeast in the 2000s. Go back to past decades or other regions and you won’t see this – on the contrary, you’ll see economic crashes that lead to both population and income loss (2000s’ Detroit, 1970s’ New York, the Caribbean over the last few decades) and economic booms that lead to both population and income gain (1970s’ Houston, 2000s’ Houston, Singapore over the last few decades).

    Although all else being equal, population growth will lead to income loss and vice versa, in reality things are not equal; population growth frequently comes from boom-fueled immigration, and population loss frequently comes from bust- or stagnation-fueled emigration.

  15. Matthew Hall says:

    so the rich are leaving and causing a decline in the overall gmp for those that remain in some metros while the poor disproportionately leave others and the incomes of those who leave still other metros are no different than those who stay? How can we tell which is happening where?

  16. DBR96A says:

    At the state level, Pennsylvania appears to be the big winner in terms of location quotient. Only Erie and State College were negative; Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were both highly positive, and most of the rest of the MSAs were at least moderately positive. This probably explains why Pennsylvania was one of the few states to exhibit faster population and income growth in the 2000′s than the 1990′s.

    Missouri and New Jersey appear to be winners as well. The biggest losers appear to be Arizona, Georgia and Texas. Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina were all highly variable.

  17. Alon Levy says:

    Matthew: that’s where IRS data (e.g. from Telestrian) comes in.

    What you should bear in mind is that all the differences in question are small. Although there’s a significant income difference between people who leave the coasts for the Sunbelt and people who live coastal states for other coastal states, overall emigrants, immigrants, and people who stay in-state have similar incomes. That’s why the effect of migration on income is so small.

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