Future Fortunes: Trends in Educational Attainment in Atlanta and Its Suburbs

This is the first of a four-part series on educational attainment in the United States. Other articles in the series analyze educational attainment trends in the most populous metros, U.S. legacy regions, and the Southeast.

From 1990 to 2010, metro Atlanta's population experienced significant changes in educational attainment. The greatest changes occurred in the proportions of the population with less than a high school diploma and those with a bachelor's degree and higher. Trends like this provide a unique indication of the direction that the area's population is headed and likely signify shifts in the local economy.

These changes, however, are not uniform across the entire metropolitan area. A closer look at Atlanta and its suburbs shows notable differences in educational attainment trends. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, we examine the educational attainment trends in Atlanta from 1990 to 2010 and compare them with the suburbs.1 With population growth rates during this time of nearly 5 percent in the city and 93 percent in the suburbs, these findings may describe the nationwide pattern of urban revitalization and the suburbanization of poverty. The changes in the mix of population in the city suggest that it may be a more desirable place to live for those with higher levels of education.

Adult populations with less than a high school diploma2
The proportion of the population with less than a high school diploma has steadily declined in both the city and the suburbs from 1990 to 2010. However, the decline in the city (16 percent) is significantly greater than that of the suburbs (6 percent), as shown in chart 1. Furthermore, the city-to-suburb ratio of this educational attainment type has fallen half a percent from 1990 to 2010, meaning the percentage of the population with less than a high school diploma is nearly the same in both areas. The dramatic reduction in the relative number of high school dropouts in the city suggests that it no longer bears a disproportionate proportion of the most disadvantaged workers.

This may also suggest the large urban-suburban gap in high school dropout rates that has distressed city schools and neighborhoods in past decades is beginning to close. If this trend continues, Atlanta may soon surpass its suburbs in its ability to attract and retain high school graduates.

Populations with bachelor's and advanced degrees
In addition to the city of Atlanta's overall decline in residents with less than a high school diploma relative to the Atlanta suburbs, the metro area has seen increases in bachelor's degrees and advanced degrees in both the city and suburbs from 1990 to 2010, as shown in chart 2. Though these trends are encouraging as a whole, the increase is notably different between the two area types; while there was a 10 percent increase in bachelor's degrees and a nearly 8 percent increase in advanced degrees in the city, the suburbs' increase was only in the 3 percent range.

This trend is the result of a virtuous cycle. The city of Atlanta has undergone significant revitalization and reinvestment over the last 20 years, making it an attractive place to live for highly educated and productive workers. Their living in the city reinforces the potential for further economic growth and a higher quality of life. Urban revitalization and the location of highly educated workers is a difficult chicken-and-egg question, but there is strong evidence that the two are interrelated and reinforce each other.3 Atlanta appears to be an example of that virtuous cycle. The educational attainment trends suggest that it may continue in the future.

The increase in bachelor's degrees raises another noteworthy point. In the 2010 census data, the city surpassed the suburbs in bachelor's degree populations for the first time since the U.S. Census began tracking this statistic in 1990, with about 27 percent and 22 percent of residents holding these degrees, respectively. This suggests that although the suburbs were once the most attractive area to live for working professionals, the city has gained popularity and surpassed the suburbs in recent years. The experience in Atlanta is further evidence of a trend that has been identified in many cities and metropolitan areas by a number of researchers, including William H. Lucy and David L. Phillips, authors of Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs, and Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City.

Other types of educational attainment
The most significant trend of the two remaining educational attainment categories—high school diploma only and some college—is perhaps the lack of change, or stagnation, of these populations. The suburban population with high school diplomas was about 27 percent in 1990 and remained at 26 percent in 2010; the suburban population with some college experience barely changed from 1990 to 2010. Atlanta shows a similar trend; see charts 3 and 4 for a complete comparison of educational attainment. There are a number of potential explanations for the general persistence of the proportion of workers in the middle. Optimistically, it could suggest that students are slowly moving up the attainment ladder (with the largest gains in college and higher degrees and the greatest declines in high school dropouts).

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Conclusion
In considering all of these individual trends and how they relate to a larger picture, a single conclusion can be drawn: educational attainment in the city of Atlanta has made substantial improvements since 1990, while the suburbs seem to have plateaued, suggesting growing economic security in the city's population compared to the suburbs. If these trends continue in the future and gaps in educational attainment between Atlanta's city and suburbs widen, there is a strong possibility that the metro area will also see widening gaps between the city and suburbs along other socioeconomic elements, such as income, employment, and poverty. The Brookings Institution has documented a recent suburbanization of poverty, challenging perceptions of inner-city concentrations of poverty and leading to new challenges in antipoverty policy.

Educational attainment has a strong correlation with individual earnings and economic outcomes. A Georgetown University study found that those with a college degree earned 84 percent more than those without one. The gap continues to widen. The Pew Research Center found that in 2013 workers aged 25 to 32 with a college degree earn $17,500 a year more than those with just a high school diploma. In 1965, the differential was $7,499. The city-suburb educational attainment trends in metro Atlanta suggest that the city may see stronger economic outcomes than the suburbs. This analysis provides further evidence of the continuation of a national trend toward the suburbanization of poverty and economic disadvantage in metro areas.

These trends could have significant impacts on how job training and educational programs are structured, where they are located, and how policies can best support increased education and skill development. In the coming months, the Atlanta Fed's community and economic development team will investigate these trends on a national level and explore what it means for human capital and employment policies and programs.

By community and economic development intern Mindy Kao and adviser Stuart Andreason

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1 Data are from the 1990 and 2000 Decennial Census and the American Community Survey's 2006–2010 five-year estimate data sets. The data were downloaded from Social Explorer.

2 The proportions of the population reported throughout refer to those aged 25 and older.

3 Partridge, Mark D., and Dan S. Rickman. 2003. "The Waxing and Waning of Regional Economies: The Chicken-Egg Question of Jobs versus People." Journal of Urban Economics 53 (1): 76–97.