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Useful Stats: Educational Attainment by Metropolitan Area (2007-2017)

February 21, 2019

For states and metropolitan areas across the country, cultivating a skilled and educated workforce is a critical part of economic development. In 2017, metropolitan areas anchored by major research universities – regions like Boulder, Ann Arbor, and Corvallis – had the highest share of adults 25+ with at least a bachelor’s degree, according to an SSTI analysis of recent census data. In a ten-year comparison of major metro areas, the share of population with at least a bachelor’s degree increased the most in Asheville (growing 6.9 percentage points to 34.1 percent), Pittsburgh (growing 6.3 percentage points to 33.5 percent), and Denver (growing 6.1 percentage points to 42.1 percent).

For the purposes of this piece, “educational attainment” specifically refers to degrees at the bachelor’s level and higher (BA+). Data is based on three separate American Community Survey estimates:  The recently released 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, the 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, and the 2005-2007 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates.

The map below shows educational attainment for the largest 150 metropolitan areas in the United States. The size of each bubble represents the share of each region’s population with at least a bachelor’s degree. The color of each bubble corresponds with the percentage point change in this share over the 10-year period from 2007 to 2017.




In six metropolitan area in 2017, more than half of those ages 25+ had at least a bachelor’s degree, and all were home to major research universities. Boulder, Colorado, (60.4 percent) had the highest share of its population with at least a bachelor’s degree, followed by Ann Arbor, Michigan, (54.4 percent), and Corvallis, Oregon, (53.7 percent). Ithaca, New York (52.6 percent), Ames, Iowa, (50.6 percent), and Lawrence, Kansas, (50.0 percent) also had more than half of their populations with at least a bachelor’s degree. Among the 150 largest metropolitan areas, Washington, D.C., (49.9 percent), San Jose, California, (49.2 percent), and San Francisco, California, (47.4 percent) had the highest share of their population with at least a bachelor’s degree. Four of the six metropolitan areas with the lowest levels for educational attainment in 2017 were in California.

Of the largest 150 metropolitan areas, the average region experienced a 3.2 percentage point increase in its population share with at least a bachelor’s degree over the 10-year period between 2005-2007 and the 2013-2017 estimates. In Asheville, North Carolina, the share of population with a BA+ increased from 27.2 percent to 34.1 percent, the largest percentage point change of any region. Over that same period, Pittsburgh (growing 6.3 percentage points to 33.5 percent), Denver (growing 6.1 percentage points to 42.1 percent), Grand Rapids (growing 6.1 percentage points to 31.8 percent), and San Jose (growing 6 percentage points to 49.2 percent) also experienced large increases in educational attainment.

Among smaller metropolitan areas, there are also standouts. Although its overall population is small, The Villages, Florida, one of America’s fastest growing retirement communities, stands out for its increasing share of educational attainment. Only 12.6 percent of The Villages’ population had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2007, according to census estimates; by 2017, that number was estimated to be 30.9 percent.

Due to economic and demographic restructuring (and in some instances, changes to geographic definitions) a handful of metropolitan areas actually saw decreases in their population ages 25 and older, yet large increases in overall educational attainment. For example, in Bloomington, Indiana, the share of the population with at least a college degree went from 29.6 percent to 40.7 over the 10-year period despite a smaller estimated population of individuals older than 25. Similar changes happened in Manhattan, Kansas; Wilmington, North Carolina; Evansville, Indiana; and Ocean City, New Jersey, among others.

Ultimately, in some instances, the definitions of metropolitan areas changed over the periods studied, and margins of error may be quite high. For that reason, comparisons over time cited in this Digest article should be used only as estimates, and more sophisticated research on this topic is encouraged.  

The interactive table below shows high-level information on educational attainment for each metropolitan area. For more detail, view the attached spreadsheet.





useful stats, education, workforce, regions