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America’s Most (and Least) Educated States

The proportion of Americans with a college degree has increased steadily each year for more than a decade. According to the latest U.S. Census data, 29.6% of Americans at least 25 years old had at least a bachelor’s degree last year, up from 27.9% in 2009.

Based on recently released educational attainment data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, West Virginia had the lowest level of educational attainment, with 18.9% of adults 25 and older having attained at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013. Conversely, more than 40% of Massachusetts residents had at least a bachelor’s degree, the highest percentage nationwide.

Click here to see America’s most educated states

Click here to see America’s least educated states

Earnings vary dramatically according to a person’s level of education. According to Holly Yettick, director of the Education Week Research Center, it is very clear that “people with higher levels of educational attainment make more money.” While a typical American adult with less than a high school diploma earned slightly more than $20,000 in 2013, a person with a bachelor’s degree earned more than $50,000.

Varying levels of income and poverty may also help explain the considerable variations in educational attainment between states. According to Sterling Lloyd, senior research associate at the Education Week Research Center, “varying poverty levels, or differences in socioeconomic status among residents in states” are among the major contributors to disparities in educational attainment.

In fact, the median household income in nine of the 10 states with the lowest educational attainment rates was far lower than the national median of $52,250 in 2013. On the other end of the spectrum, the most educated states all had among the highest median household income in the nation.

A number of other factors contribute to a state’s college attainment rate. While it is extremely difficult to measure the impact of policy on a region’s level of education, Lloyd explained that policy makers expect that “efforts to increase financial assistance for students will ultimately result in higher rates of educational attainment.” State policymakers are also attempting to improve college readiness by implementing new curriculum standards and benchmarks for college readiness, Lloyd told 24/7 Wall St.

College attainment levels may also be influenced by a migration effect. Yettick pointed out that areas in Colorado, for example, have excellent college attainment rates but relatively poor high school graduation rates. This may indicate that while a state’s education system may be weak, its job market may be strong, attracting people with college degrees to move to the state.

However, a state may also attract people without college degrees. Yettick mentioned Nevada in particular, which had among the lowest college attainment. According to Yettick, “there are a lot of service jobs, so a lot of people moving into [Nevada] do not have college degrees.”

Yet, strong post-secondary education systems are still very important to states. Lloyd said that higher college graduation rates will make a state “more competitive in attracting companies to locate or relocate,” which is why “you see a lot of governors pushing higher education in their state.” Lloyd further explained that with increasingly mobile infrastructure, the education level of the labor force is among the most important factors a company will consider when deciding where to move.

To identify the most and least educated states in America, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the states with the highest and lowest percentages of residents aged 25 or older with at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013. 24/7 Wall St. also reviewed the percentages of adults who have completed education at each major education level, including high school, college, and graduate programs. In addition, we reviewed poverty rates and median earnings for the various levels of education, as well as statewide poverty rates and median household incomes. All data are from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

These are the most and least educated states in America.

The Most Educated States in America

10. Minnesota
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 33.5%
> Median household income: $60,702 (9th highest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 11.2% (7th lowest)

More than one in three adults 25 and older in Minnesota had at least a bachelor’s degree last year, the 10th highest proportion nationwide. Like most well-educated states, Minnesota residents with a higher education were far less likely to live in poverty. Just 3.2% of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree lived below the poverty line last year, less than in all but two other states. Households in the state were also quite wealthy, with a typical household earning $60,702 in 2013, versus a national median household income of $52,250.

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9. New York
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 34.1%
> Median household income: $57,369 (16th highest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 16.0% (20th highest)

While New York had some of the highest proportions of adults with a college degree, only 85.6% of adults had a high school education as of 2013, slightly worse than the national rate. Yet, among the state’s younger residents, education attainment rates appear to be very strong. More than 61% of the 18 and 24-years olds had at least some college experience, the fifth highest rate in the U.S., while 14.4% of this age group had a bachelor’s degree, better than any other state except for Massachusetts.

8. New Hampshire
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 34.6%
> Median household income: $64,230 (7th highest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 8.7% (the lowest)

Nearly 35% of New Hampshire residents 25 and older had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013, the eighth highest rate in the country. New Hampshire’s labor market was also healthy enough to offer a meaningful escape from poverty at all levels of education. Just 9.8% of workers who finished their education with a high school diploma lived in poverty in 2013, the second lowest rate in the country. Additionally, New Hampshire residents with a high school diploma had median earnings of $32,463 in 2013, well above the national median of $27,350.

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7. Vermont
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 35.7%
> Median household income: $52,578 (20th highest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 12.3% (12th lowest)

While most states with well-educated populations also tend to be quite wealthy, Vermont’s household median income of $52,578 last year was just in line with the national median. The median earnings of Vermonters with bachelor’s degrees were even more unusual — at $40,889, the earnings were considerably lower than those among educated people nationwide. Like much of the northeast, the job market in Vermont has struggled in recent years. Governor Peter Shumlin recently announced an initiative to attract, and retain, talented workers.

6. Virginia
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 36.1%
> Median household income: $62,666 (8th highest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 11.7% (9th lowest)

While more than 36% of Virginia residents have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree only 88.4% of residents had graduated from high school or completed its equivalent, a lower rate than in most other other highly educated states. Like in most states, pursuing higher education in Virginia is beneficial. A typical Virginia resident with a bachelor’s degree made $54,270, nearly $26,000 more than the median earnings for Virginians with a high school diploma. State residents with a high school diploma or its equivalent, however, still earned more than the national median of just $27,350 for Americans who did not pursue an education after high school.

5. New Jersey
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 36.6%
> Median household income: $70,165 (3rd highest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 11.4% (8th lowest)

New Jersey is the highest-paying state in the nation for residents with at least a bachelor’s degree. Residents with a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of educational attainment had median earnings of $60,457 last year, the most in the nation. Those who had an even higher professional or graduate degree had median earnings of more than $80,000, also the highest in the U.S. Households in general were typically wealthier in New Jersey than in other states. The median household income in the state last year was greater than $70,000, higher than the national median income of $52,250 and third highest in the nation. Also, no state had a higher share of households that earned $200,000 or more, at 9.7%.

4.Connecticut
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 37.2%
> Median household income: $67,098 (5th highest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 10.7% (4th lowest)

Connecticut households were among the wealthiest in the U.S., with a median household income of more than $67,000 in 2013. And adult residents with at least a high school diploma were generally paid very well. At each level, from high school graduates through graduate degree holders, Connecticut was among the top five states by median earnings. The combination of high median earnings and the large share of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree likely contributed to low poverty rates. Less than 11% of residents lived below the poverty line in 2012, versus 15.8% nationally.

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3. Maryland
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 37.4%
> Median household income: $72,483 (1st highest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 10.1% (3rd lowest)

More than 37% of Maryland residents had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013, while 17.1% had a graduate or professional degree, the second highest percentage in the nation. In addition to a well educated population, Maryland’s poverty rate was quite low. Just over 10% of Maryland residents lived in poverty in 2013, the third lowest rate in the country. Even among residents with only a high school diploma, poverty rates did not rise above 11%. Poverty rates were likely kept low by residents’ high earnings. Those with only a high school diploma earned a median pay of more than $32,000 in 2013, the third highest in the country.

2. Colorado
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 37.8%
> Median household income: $58,823 (12th highest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 13.0% (16th lowest)

While roughly 38% of Colorado residents had obtained at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013, only 5% of households had more than $200,000 in annual income, lower than in most of America’s most educated states. Median earnings among those with a higher level of education were also lower than in most other educated states. Residents ages 25 and up who finished their education with a bachelor’s degree earned less than $47,000, below the national median of $50,050. Geographical differences may be driving the lower levels of earnings. Colorado is one of only a few most educated state not located in the northeast.

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1. Massachusetts
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 40.3%
> Median household income: $66,768 (6th highest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 11.9% (11th lowest)

More than 40% of Massachusetts adults had obtained at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013, more than 10 percentage points higher than the national rate of 29.6%. Also, roughly one in every six adults in Massachusetts had a graduate or professional degree, the highest proportion of any state. While the state is highly educated, 6.5% of the population earned less than $10,000, the highest proportion among the most educated states. It is likely that Massachusetts will continued to be one of the top states for educational attainment, as nearly 16.0% of 18-24-year old in the state had a bachelor’s degree, the most out of any state.

Click here to see America’s least educated states

The Least Educated States in America

10. Tennessee
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 24.8%
> Median household income: $44,297 (9th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 17.8% (12th highest)

While roughly 30% of American adults had attained some form of higher education last year, less than one-quarter of Tennessee residents had at least a bachelor’s degree. Like most states with low educational attainment rates, Tennessee households struggle to make ends meet. More than 17% of households relied on food stamps last year, more than in all but a handful of states. Adults who had not completed high school earned a median income of just $18,706, one of the lowest median earnings for Americans without a high school diploma. Tennessee recently adopted an alternative high school equivalency test, which is expected to make a high school diploma even more accessible to adults in the state. And in an effort to improve college attainment rates, Governor Bill Haslam announced in February a plan to make all state community colleges absolutely free to residents.

9. Oklahoma
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 23.8%
> Median household income: $45,690 (10th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 16.8% (16th lowest)

Just over half of Oklahoma’s population between ages 18 and 24 had some college experience last year, lower than in all but a few other states. One reason residents may not want to pursue a college degree may be the low earnings for Oklahomans with a higher education. The median earnings of residents with a bachelor’s degree was just $41,397 in 2013, while the median of residents with even higher degrees was $52,610 that year, in both cases lower than in all but six other states. In June, Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill that replaced the use of Common Core State Standards — an initiative to standardize educational goals across states — with state-determined curriculum guidelines. The hope is that doing so will create a more rigorous curriculum that better prepares students for college and the workforce.

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8. Indiana
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 23.8%
> Median household income: $47,529 (17th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 15.9% (22nd lowest)

Just 51.6% of 18 to 24 year-olds in Indiana had at least some college experience as of last year, versus 55.7% of Americans that age. Additionally, less than 9% of state residents had a graduate or professional degree in 2013, also among the lower rates in the nation. Among those who had attained a graduate degree, the median income was less than $60,000 in 2013 versus a national median of $65,565. State residents as a whole were not particularly wealthy. A typical household earned $47,529, compared to the national median household income of $52,250. Also, just 2.6% of residents earned more than $200,000 last year, nearly half the proportion nationwide.

7. Alabama
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 23.5%
> Median household income: $42,849 (4th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 18.7% (7th lowest)

Alabama households earned slightly less than $43,000 in 2013, or nearly $10,000 less than the national median of $52,250. However, for the 23.5% of residents who had at least a bachelor’s degree, earnings were substantially higher. Yet, the 15.5% of residents who had not obtained a high school diploma or equivalent had median earnings of only $18,851, among the lowest in the nation. Additionally, more than 30% of such adults lived below the poverty line in 2013, higher than in most states nationwide.

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6. Kentucky
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 22.6%
> Median household income: $43,399 (5th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 18.8% (6th highest)

More than one in 10% Kentucky households earned less than $10,000 in 2013, versus 7.6% of households across the U.S. Additionally, 18.8% of residents lived below the poverty level, the sixth highest rate nationally. Poverty in the state may be due at least in part to low rates of educational attainment. Even those who pursued higher education poverty levels were more likely than most similarly-educated Americans to live below the poverty line. Of the less than 23% of residents who had attained at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013, 13.6% lived in poverty, among the worst rates nationwide.

5. Louisiana
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 22.5%
> Median household income: $44,164 (8th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 19.8% (3rd highest)

In addition to the only 22.5% of adult residents who had a bachelor’s degree in Louisiana, a low proportion of adults 25 and older even completed high school. Further, less than 21% of 18 to 24 year olds had less than a high school diploma or equivalent in 2013, the worst among all states. Education reform in general is controversial in the state. Governor Bobby Jindal has spoken out against the Common Core education standards adopted by many states, including Louisiana. Yet educational attainment was beneficial for state residents. While Louisianans who finished their education with a bachelor’s degree had a slightly lower median income than similarly-educated Americans nationwide, they considerably out-earned residents who did not have a college degree.

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4. Nevada
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 22.5%
> Median household income: $51,230 (25th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 15.8% (24th highest)

Nevadans are among the least likely to complete high school and go to college. One in five residents 18 to 24 year old had less than a high school diploma last year, more than in every state except for Louisiana. And less than 45% of 18 to 24 year old residents had at least some college experience, also less than in all but one other state. Nevadans may not have as much of a financial incentive to pursue education, as residents with low rates of educational attainment were considerably less likely to live in poverty than Americans in other states. Perhaps due to the state’s vibrant entertainment industry, Nevada had the highest-paying jobs that do not require a high school diploma. The median pay for an adult aged 25 or older who did not graduate from high school was $23,119 in 2013, considerably higher than most other similarly educated Americans.

3. Arkansas
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 20.6%
> Median household income: $40,511 (2nd lowest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 19.7% (4th highest)

Only 20.6% of residents in Arkansas had obtained at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013, less than in all but two other states. And the median household income was just $40,511, second only to Mississippi. There were very few Arkansas residents with large incomes — the income of only 2.2% of households surpassed $200,000 last year — and a very large proportion of residents were struggling. Nearly one in five residents lived below the poverty line, among the highest rates in the U.S. While the highest proportion of residents in poverty were those who had not obtained a high school diploma or equivalent., the median earnings for such residents was higher than in many states, at $20,092.

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2. Mississippi
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 20.4%
> Median household income: $37,963 (the lowest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 24.0% (the highest)

Nearly one in four Mississippi residents lived in poverty last year, by far the highest rate in the nation. More than 35% of people without a high school diploma in the state lived in poverty, also the highest rate compared to all other states. The poverty rate was substantially lower for residents with at least a bachelor’s degree, at just 6.7%. When compared to educated residents in other states, however, this was still among the highest rates in the country. Even residents with the the highest level of educational attainment — professional or graduate degrees — earned considerably less than those in other states. The median earnings of Mississippi residents with such degrees was less than $48,000 last year, the lowest nationwide.

1. West Virginia
> Bachelor’s degree or higher: 18.9%
> Median household income: $41,253 (3rd lowest)
> Pct. below poverty level: 18.5% (10th highest)

Less than 19% of West Virginia’s adult population had completed at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013, more than 10 percentage points lower than the national rate and the lowest rate in the country. Residents ages 18 to 24 across the nation were also far more likely than West Virginia residents of this age group to have an associate’s degree or at least some college experience. West Virginia was one of only a few states where less than half of residents between 18 and 24 had at least some college experience last year. And yet, residents were not the worst off relative other least educated states. The median earnings of West Virginians without a high school diploma was $20,267, in line with the national median.

Click here to see America’s most educated states