Detailed Findings & Methodology
Individuals with a bachelor’s degree generally have a higher earning potential than those with lower levels of education and are more likely to report higher incomes overall. Nationwide, the median annual earnings for workers with a college degree of $52,484 is 71.4% greater than the median earnings of $30,624 for workers with just a high school diploma.
The difference in earning potential between college and non-college graduates likely contribute to income differences at the state level. In nine of the 10 states with the highest college attainment rate, the median household income is higher than the national annual median of $60,336.
One of the factors most affecting college attainment is the share of adults who have graduated from high school. A high school diploma is a requirement for most four-year colleges and universities.
While homegrown college graduates often account for the largest share of a state’s college-educated population, in a number of states, graduates from out of state account for the largest share of the college-educated population. According to a November 2015 study by the Population Studies Center of the University of Michigan, 57.5% of the U.S. college-educated population is living in a different state than they were born in. In some states, migrants from out of state comprise more than 80% of the total college-educated population.
As a result, college attainment is largely determined by a state’s ability to attract and retain college graduates. Many of the states with the highest college attainment rates are home to the nation’s top universities. While the 10 states with the highest college attainment rates are home to 36 of the top 100 national universities, according to the U.S. News & World Report rankings, just four of the top 100 universities are in the 10 states with the lowest college attainment rates.
One of the largest pull factors for college graduates is the health of the local job market. Over the past year, the college attainment rate increased substantially in a number of states with low unemployment. In 12 of the 15 states with the largest percentage-point increases in college attainment from 2016 to 2017, the annual unemployment rate is below the 4.4% national figure.
Similarly, college graduates tend to move to states where college degrees are more valuable — where they would have a greater earning advantage. Nationwide, the median earnings for workers with a bachelor’s degree is $22,000 greater than that of workers with a high school education. In all 20 of the states with the lowest college attainment rates, the difference in earnings between college- and high school-educated workers is less than the national figure.
States with high college attainment rates also tend to have more advanced, high-paying employment opportunities for college graduates. The states with the highest college attainment rates have large shares of workers employed in the educational and health care services, professional, scientific, and management services, finance and insurance, and information sectors, all of which tend to be high-paying.
To determine America’s most and least educated states, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentage of adults age 25 and over with at least a bachelor’s degree with data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey. The percentage of adults who have completed at least high school or its equivalent also comes from the 2017 ACS. Median household income, population, employment by industry, food stamp recipiency, and poverty rates also come from the 2017 ACS. We also reviewed annual average unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2017 and 2016.