Future Fortunes: Trends in Educational Attainment in the Most Populous Metros

This is the second article in a four-part series on education attainment in the United States. Other articles in the series analyze educational attainment trends in Atlanta, U.S. legacy regions, and the Southeast.

Metropolitan area or metro contains an urban core with a relatively high population density and adjacent counties with a high degree of social and economic interaction with the urban core.

City or central city refers to the urban core of a metro, delineated by incorporated city boundaries.

Suburb refers to the areas of a metro outside of the central city.

The United States has made great strides over the past few decades in educational attainment. From 1990 to 2010, the proportion of adult high school dropouts in the country's 50 biggest metropolitan areas fell from 23 percent to 14 percent while those with a bachelor's degree or higher rose from 24 percent to 33 percent. These numbers alone speak substantially to the nation's drive to improve access to education.

However, looking deeper into metro and local trends can help to explain the resurgence of many cities and the decline of many suburbs; trends in central cities and suburbs seem to tell a different story. It is not until one takes a closer look at the 50 areas that seemingly opposing trends begin to make sense. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, we examine educational attainment trends across the nation's 50 biggest metros and how they may have different implications for cities and suburbs.

Suburbs outpace cities in reducing population with less than a high school diploma
In addition to the significant drop in overall high school dropout rates, the national gap between cities and their suburbs has slowly declined from 1990 to 2010 (see chart 1). Although cities still had a notably higher proportion of high school dropouts in 2010 (19.6 percent in cities versus 12.4 percent in suburbs), the absolute difference is less pronounced than it was in 1990 (29.5 percent in cities versus nearly 20 percent in suburbs).


While central cities have made great strides in reducing the overall proportion of the population with less than a high school diploma, the number of central cities that have a higher proportion of their adult population with less than a high school diploma than their respective suburbs remains unchanged at 46 of 50 metros. The four cities that have lower proportions are Seattle, San Diego, Charlotte, and Greensboro.

Despite the fact that virtually all 50 cities and suburbs experienced a decline in the proportion of the population with less than a high school diploma and the decline was greater in more cities than suburbs, many cities did relatively worse in 2010 (compared to 1990) than their respective suburbs, meaning the percentage in cities was still much greater than in suburbs. To illustrate, we calculated the ratio of population percentage with less than a high school diploma in cities to that of suburbs. A ratio of 1.32 suggests that, on average, there are 132 residents without a high school diploma in central cities for every 100 in the respective suburbs.

Of the 50 metro areas observed, the ratio of adults in cities versus suburbs with less than a high school diploma went up in 34 metros, and the national average ratio (or proportion of city residents with less than a high school diploma to the same suburban population) went from 1.48 in 1990 to 1.58 in 2010. Our previous post on educational trends in Atlanta showed a different trend, highlighting the city of Atlanta as one of the better-performing cities, in terms of educational attainment, relative to its suburbs. While cities are often seen as magnets for talent and ideas, this statistic essentially indicates that suburbs are addressing the concentrations of high school dropouts at a faster rate than cities. These changes largely speak to the residential location of populations with certain levels of educational attainment and may reflect a combination of a range of policies as well as the housing options available to residents. Table 1 shows the metro areas with the greatest changes to this ratio.

City attainment of bachelor's and higher degrees slowly outpacing suburbs
Unlike the trends with high school diplomas, on the whole, the bachelor's and higher (BA+ degrees) attainment trends in central cities are becoming similar to suburban populations. The convergence is slow and steady. In 1990, city populations lagged suburban ones by only about 2.5 percentage points in the proportion of the population with BA+ degrees. By 2010, that gap had closed to roughly 1.5 percent (see chart 2). The overarching positive national trend in bachelor's and advanced degree attainment can be seen in both cities and suburbs alike.

The national city-to-suburb ratio in the proportion of the population with a BA+ degree has gone up slightly, from 0.90 in 1990 to 0.95 in 2010. That suggests that although the proportions of the population with bachelor's and advanced degrees have always been close, cities may soon surpass suburbs and hold a greater proportion. In light of the often-reported resurgence of cities, such an outcome would not be surprising. Table 2 shows the cities with the greatest amount of change in this area.

This suggests an interesting dynamic. While some cities, such as Atlanta, are improving both in terms of reducing the number of dropouts and increasing BA+ degree holders relative to their suburbs, many more are improving the proportion of the population with the highest levels of education and losing ground in terms of those with the lowest levels of education. Chart 3 shows the changes in the city-to-suburb ratio of both bachelor's and higher degree attainment by the changes in the city-to-suburb ratio of the proportion of the population with less than a high school diploma. Metros in the upper left quadrant both lowered proportions of the population with less than a high school diploma relative to suburbs and increased BA+ attainment relative to the suburbs. Moving clockwise to the upper right, metros increased BA+ attainment and high school dropouts relative to the suburb. The lower right shows metros that both increased proportions with less than a high school diploma and decreased proportions of the population with a BA+ relative to the suburbs. The bottom left quadrant shows metros that decreased proportions of the population with less than a high school diploma and a BA+ relative to the suburbs.

In the top 50 metros, this continues to suggest that central cities are both magnets for talent—educated and productive workers—as well as continuing to house concentrations of those without a college degree, the population with arguably the greatest challenges in the current labor market. While this analysis does not look into micro- or neighborhood-level outcomes, it is very likely that in terms of educational attainment, cities show "islands of gain in seas of decline" (a quote from Alan Berube in Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs, by William H. Lucy and David L. Phillips). This dynamic potentially makes cities—especially the central cities in the 50 most populous metro areas included in this analysis—centers for some of the highest gains in worker productivity but likely coincident with some of the greatest gains in income and wealth inequality. These trends present both a challenge and opportunity for central cities: the influx of residents with high-paying jobs creates a stronger economic base, but providing opportunities for those without degrees remains imperative to promote economic mobility.

Suburbs in large metros face a different challenge. While change may be slow, cities are becoming more attractive to educated residents who have the highest levels of locational choice. Historically, suburban communities attracted these workers easily. Losing these residents could create local economic stagnation. One positive note is that suburbs have significantly reduced the proportion of their populations with less than a high school diploma. Many observers have suggested that those with only a diploma will face challenges in the labor market, so reducing the proportion of population with less than a diploma is a first step toward meeting current and future labor market demands.

The next article in the Future Fortunes series will look at changes in educational attainment in central cities and suburbs in postindustrial "legacy regions."

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