Future Fortunes: Trends in Educational Attainment in U.S. Legacy Regions

This article is the third in a four-part series on educational attainment in the United States. Other articles in the series analyze educational attainment trends in Atlanta, the most populous metro areas, and the Southeast.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, the decline of "legacy regions" was characterized by sustained job and population loss over the span of a few decades. Legacy regions are typically older industrial economies, often centered on manufacturing and production. They are sometimes thought of as the Rust Belt regions in the Midwest and Northeast, but the dynamics at play—population loss, job loss, and industrial change—are pervasive across the country. In fact, the regional metro areas of New Orleans, Birmingham, and Macon, Georgia, share many of the same characteristics with northern counterparts and are also considered legacy regions.

As one could predict, the negative effect of mass industrial and economic disinvestment that caused the decline of these regions led to further disinvestment in many of the institutions, infrastructure, and aspects of these regions' welfare. Like so many other socioeconomic elements in legacy regions, the educational attainment levels of their populations suffered compared to the rest of the nation. This may have been due to both limited demand for skilled workers in these areas as well as a limited supply of skilled workers who could create new and innovative work. Yet, a more telling narrative emerges in comparing the educational attainment trends of the cities and their respective suburbs.

Using U.S. Census Bureau data, we examine the educational attainment trends in legacy regions from 1990 to 2010. We first look at how they have compared to the nation's 50 most populous metro areas, then we observe how the central cities of legacy regions have fared in comparison to their suburbs. In this analysis, we define legacy regions as those where the central city population is over 50,000 and that, from their peak population year, have lost over 20 percent of their population in 2010. This definition is used by many researchers who study legacy regions, including researchers involved in the 110th American Assembly on "Reinventing America's Legacy Cities" and the Legacy Cities Design Initiative. This common definition is helpful, but the dynamics of postindustrial legacy regions are likely seen in many smaller places as well.

Comparing legacy regions with the 50 most populous metro areas
From 1990 to 2010, the country's legacy regions experienced decreases in the proportion of their adult population with less than a high school diploma, despite their challenges with sustained job and population loss. On average, the legacy regions actually experienced a greater decline in this proportion of their population than the 50 most populous metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs); while the top 50 MSAs' average adult population with less than a high school diploma fell from 22.5 percent to 14.2 percent (an 8.3 percent decrease), that of the legacy regions fell from just under 23 percent to 12 percent (a 10.6 percent decrease), as shown in chart 1.

The attainment of higher degrees in legacy regions is not substantially different than the outcomes in the 50 most populous metro areas. Like the top 50 MSAs, the proportion of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher in these regions steadily increased from 1990 to 2010, as shown in chart 2. Although the legacy regions have consistently had slightly lower percentages than the 50 most populous regions, the degree of increase in both region types during this time period is nearly identical: a 9.04 percent increase in the legacy regions and an 8.65 percent increase in the top 50 MSAs.

Comparing cities to suburbs in legacy regions
The previous comparison of the legacy regions and the 50 most populous MSA regions suggests only minor differences in educational attainment patterns. However, a closer look into how educational attainment has fared in the cities of legacy regions compared to their suburbs and the disparities that exist between the two gives us greater understanding of how their designation as a legacy region has had a more adverse effect on their cities than their suburbs.

Less than a high school diploma: From 1990 to 2010, legacy regions have consistently maintained a higher city-to-suburb ratio of adult population proportion with less than a high school diploma compared to the top 50 MSAs. In 2010, this ratio was 1.83 for legacy regions and 1.58 for the top 50 MSAs, which means that the disparity between cities and suburbs in legacy regions is greater than that of the 50 most populous MSAs, on average. These ratios show the concentration of populations in the central city relative to the suburbs, suggesting that 83 percent more of the population in a legacy region central city had less than a high school diploma compared to its suburbs. There is variation among the legacy regions, but many fall close to the mean ratio and most follow the same pattern.

Furthermore, while both region types experienced an increase in this ratio from 1990 to 2010, signifying a growing disparity between cities and suburbs, the widening of this gap has accelerated in legacy regions faster than in the top 50 MSAs. See Table 1 for a comparison of these ratios.

Bachelor's degree or higher: Another concerning trend unique to the legacy regions can be seen in the comparison of higher educational attainment (which includes bachelor's and advanced degrees) in cities and suburbs. Like the ratios for populations with less than a high school diploma, the ratios for city-to-suburb proportion of populations with a bachelor's degree or higher are more severe in the legacy regions than in the top 50 MSAs. In 2010, this ratio was 0.78 in the legacy regions and 0.95 in the top 50 MSAs, which means that not only do cities have lower levels of bachelor's and advanced degree attainment than their respective suburbs, but also that the gap between the two is more pronounced in the legacy regions than in the top 50 MSAs. See Table 2 for a comparison of these ratios.

Legacy suburbs and resilience to educational attainment decline
In terms of educational attainment, the data seem to suggest that the longer-term economic decline of legacy regions had little to no effect on their suburbs. In fact, the legacy suburbs outperformed the top 50 MSAs in terms of population proportion with less than a high school diploma by 1.86 percent in 2010; the cities in this category were nearly identical with only a 0.24 percentage point difference. At the other end of the educational attainment spectrum, the data seem to confirm this notion that legacy suburbs were largely unaffected by economic decline. While attainment of bachelor's degrees and higher in legacy suburbs have remained fairly close to that of the top 50 MSAs, the same cannot be said for legacy cities. From 1990 to 2010, the difference between legacy cities and the top 50 MSA cities in terms of population with a bachelor's degree and higher grew from 4.52 percent to 5.89 percent. See charts 3 and 4 for population changes in these groups.



This also suggests that the notion of an entire legacy region economy or labor market in distress is likely an overstatement. In terms of educational attainment, the suburbs of legacy metros are nearly identical to the trends in the 50 most populous metro areas in the country. This implies that legacy cities are challenged in attracting and retaining educated workers, but legacy regions continue to do well when their suburbs are included. While we didn't look at the location of work or neighborhood-level educational attainment, variations in the relationship of where people live to where they work may be a determinant of these outcomes across metro areas.

These trends suggest two important points: First, cities in legacy regions have not realized the same level of improvement in educational attainment as their suburbs. Second, this educational attainment gap between cities and suburbs in legacy regions is notably worse than in the top 50 MSAs. Despite the differences in scope, both points are likely results of the spatial layout of legacy regions, where the economic and industrial activity was concentrated within city districts and workers from all ends of the skill spectrum, but especially middle-income and lower-skilled workers lived within those boundaries. As these areas began to lose significant proportions of their industry and jobs, the cities that housed them were the hardest hit. Workers who were once well positioned in a labor market and near a number of jobs commensurate with their skills found themselves with fewer opportunities and in need of retooling their skill sets over time. What may have happened is that those who did retool their skills left the central cities or the legacy regions altogether.

Although many large cities across the nation have experienced significant economic growth and revitalization in recent years, many American legacy cities have yet to enjoy the same success. In the coming years, legacy cities will require innovative economic restructuring and policy interventions in order to attract and retain a workforce that's competitive with their suburbs and the rest of the nation.

The next article in the Future Fortunes series will look at the educational attainment trends in metropolitan areas in the Southeast—those covered by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

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