Metropolitan Policy Program

Educational Attainment

Author: Alan Berube

Rising educational attainment in the United States over time has contributed greatly to increases in our economic productivity and standard of living. This subject area profiles the educational status of adults (how much schooling they have completed and their enrollment in higher education), identifies differences by age and race/ethnicity, and reveals their relationship to the underlying economic features of American cities and regions. Findings on educational attainment include:


  • Americans are growing more educated, but progress appears to be slowing among younger adults. While the share of U.S. adults holding a four-year college degree rose from 24 percent to 28 percent from 2000 to 2008, a lower share of 25 to 34 year-olds than 35 to 44 year-olds held a four-year college degree in 2008, a reversal from the pattern in 2000. Nearly a quarter of those younger adults have completed some college, but not a degree.

  • Smart metropolitan areas are getting smarter, faster. Already highly-educated metro areas such as Boston, New York, San Diego, and San Francisco ranked among the top gainers of college graduates in the 2000s. Thirty-four (34) percentage points separated the top- (Washington, D.C.) and bottom-ranked (Bakersfield) large metro areas on college degree attainment in 2008, up from 26 points in 1990.

  • In every large metro area, educational attainment for whites exceeds that for both blacks and Latinos. Educational disparities by race and ethnicity evident at the national level are uniformly present in large metropolitan areas, where overall, 36 percent of white adults possess college degrees, versus 19 percent of blacks and 14 percent of Hispanics. Some metro areas in the West register higher degree-earning rates for African Americans, as do some in the Midwest, Northeast, and Florida for Latinos.

  • Residents of older suburbs are more highly educated than other metropolitan residents. In Cambridge, MA; Arlington, VA; Bellevue, WA; and Sunnyvale, CA, more than half of adults have a four-year college degree, as do 36 percent of residents across all high-density suburbs. As a group, primary cities lost some of their share of collegeeducated residents to suburbs over the 2000s, reflecting in part the suburbanization of the large, highly educated Boomer generation.

  • Throughout the country, more young people are going to college or graduate school. All 100 of the largest metro areas experienced an increase in the share of their young adults enrolled in higher education between 2000 and 2008. Some of the largest increases occurred in older industrial metro areas of the Northeast and Midwest, suggesting that young people in these struggling economies increasingly recognize the need for a post-secondary degree to succeed in the labor market.

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