America’s Most and Least Educated States

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Detailed Findings and Methodology

Educational attainment among states generally follow broader geographic patterns. While the most educated states tend to be in the Northeast, the least educated states are often in the South. Of the 10 states home to the highest shares of adults with a bachelor’s degree, eight are either in New England or otherwise along the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, of the 10 states home to the smallest share of college educated residents, eight are in the South.

Along with geography, income is also closely tied to educational attainment. A college education paves the way to higher paying jobs that are mostly unavailable to those with only a high school diploma. Nationwide, the typical college graduate earns $51,676 annually — nearly $22,000 more than the median income of high school graduates of $29,969.

Not surprisingly, states with higher college attainment rates tend to report higher incomes. Each of the 10 states home to the largest shares of college educated adults has a higher median household income than the median household income nationwide of $57,617. Conversely, each of the 10 states with the smallest shares of college educated adults has a lower than typical median household income.

On an individual level, educational attainment largely determines the kinds of jobs available to a worker. On a broader statewide scale, educational attainment often reflects employment composition by sector. For example, in Wyoming, a state with one of the lower college attainment rates, about 1 in 10 members of the labor force work in agriculture and mining — a sector that typically does not require a formal college education — the largest such share of any state. The state also has far higher than typical employment concentration in the construction and transportation and warehousing sector.

Meanwhile, states with higher educational attainment rates tend to have greater shares of the workforce employed in the professional, scientific, and management sector — one that typically requires at least a college degree. In Maryland, a state with one of the nation’s highest bachelor’s degree attainment rates, 15.6% of the labor force works in the professional, scientific, and management sector — the largest such share of any state. A disproportionately high share of Maryland’s labor force also work in public administration and information — both sectors with relatively high educational attainment requirements.

Just as educational attainment affects employment composition, it also appears to impact the overall strength of a state’s economy — likely due in no small part to the fact that adults with a college education are often more attractive candidates to employers. Of the 10 states home to the largest shares of college educated adults, seven had a lower annual unemployment rate than the 4.9% U.S. jobless rate in 2016. Of the 10 least educated states, on the other hand, seven had annual unemployment rates as high or higher than the U.S. figure.

To identify America’s most and least educated states, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentages of adults who have completed at least a bachelor’s degree in each state from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey. The percentage of adults who have completed at least high school or its equivalent also come from the 2016 ACS. Median household income, employment by industry, food stamp recipiency, and poverty rates also come from the 2016 ACS. We also reviewed annual average unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2015 and 2016.