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Useful stats: Educational attainment across the states, 2000-2017

February 28, 2019
By: Jason Rittenberg

From 2000 to 2017, the share of the U.S. population with a bachelor’s degree (or higher) increased from 24 percent to 31 percent. Meanwhile, the share of the population with a high school education (or less) decreased from 48 percent to 40 percent. All states experienced these directional changes in educational attainment. State performance relative to other states was relatively static, particularly for those performing best and worst in 2000, with few changes in the rankings of states by share of the population with a bachelor’s degree.

These measurements of educational attainment are from U.S. Census data in 2000 and the five-year estimates from the American Community Survey for 2012 (collecting data from 2008-2012) and 2017 (2013-2017). The summary file SSTI created for this article is available here.


Washington, D.C. has led the nation in the percentage of its population to hold at least a bachelor’s degree since 2000 and had the greatest percentage increase over the past 17 years. All of the other states in the top five for educational attainment — Colorado (3rd in 2017), Connecticut (5th), Maryland (4th) and Massachusetts (2nd) — posted relatively slow rates of growth, and Colorado actually had the third-lowest increase among all states since 2000.


Among states in the middle of the pack for educational attainment, a few have shown particularly strong gains in population share with at least a bachelor’s degree. Pennsylvania (24th in 2017), experienced the greatest increase since 2012, followed by North Carolina (26th overall and 2nd greatest gain), and Maine (23rd overall, 5th greatest gain). Since 2000, Puerto Rico increased the share of its population with a bachelor’s degree from 18 percent to 25 percent, for the 2nd best percentage improvement over this period (behind Washington, D.C.).

Arkansas (50th in 2017), Kentucky (49th) and West Virginia (52nd) are notable for being among the bottom states for percent of population with at least a bachelor’s degree but having some of highest percentage increases in degrees among the states. Mississippi (51st in 2017) has a low rate of population with a bachelor’s but also had the fifth-lowest percentage gain from 2012 to 2017.

For the states near the bottom of the rankings, substantial intervention — and likely over a number of decades — seems necessary to catch up with their peers. To illustrate this point, consider West Virginia, which ranked last in 2017 with 20 percent of its population holding a bachelor’s degree. This was up from 18 percent in 2012, for an improvement of 11 percent, 4th best among the states over this period. However, in order to catch up with Georgia, the 25th-ranked state in 2017, West Virginia would have needed to improve its share by 67 percent, which is roughly twice the gains most of the best states made from 2000 to 2017.

Educational attainment gains from 2000 and 2012 to 2017 show that America and the states have a lot to celebrate. The nation as a whole has become better educated. Of course, these measures of educational attainment focus on degree outcomes only and are imperfect proxies for employment preparedness (or culture and anything else that education is often used to signify). Clearly, with the majority of the population not completing college, and 40 percent of the population having no college experience, a multi-faceted approach to training, education and the creation of economic opportunities remains critical.

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