The U.S. population has become increasingly educated over the years, but it is by no means a monolith. While graduate degrees are relatively common in some states, in others, even Bachelor’s degrees are hard to come by. How does this education stratification break out across the country, and in which states do people have the highest educational attainment?
How do High School Graduation Rates Vary by State?
High school graduation rates are high across the U.S., as an average of 88.5% of residents 25 and older have received a high school diploma. As you can see in the map above, high school graduation rates tends to be higher in the North and lower in the South. Graduation rates are highest in Montana, Wyoming, Vermont, Minnesota, and New Hampshire, where they range from 93.3% to 94%. They are the lowest in California, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico, where they range from 83.9% to 86.5%.
High school graduation rates are fairly evenly distributed by state. Most states are clustered near the average, with a few stragglers at the bottom.
How Are College Graduates Distributed by State?
The distribution of college graduates across the U.S. looks quite different from high school graduates. The average percentage of a state’s residents with a Bachelor’s degree or higher is 32.9%, which is a huge drop from the percentage with a high school diploma and likely has a bearing on opinions about student loans.
States with the highest percentage of college graduates tend to be in the Northeast or on the West Coast, and those with the lowest tend to be in the South. The states with the highest proportion of residents with Bachelor’s degrees are Massachusetts, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut, which have percentages ranging from 40% to 44.5%. The states with the lowest proportion of residents with Bachelor’s degrees are West Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Kentucky, which have percentages ranging from 21.3% to 25%. There’s clearly a big spread between states at the top and bottom of the range. That means in Massachusetts, the state with the highest percentage of college graduates, almost half the population has Bachelor’s degrees, while in West Virginia, the state with the lowest percentage, it’s closer to only 1 in 5.
It’s worth noting that the states with the lowest proportion of college graduates also have the lowest household incomes. This suggests that education level likely plays a role in the differences in income we see between states.
As you can see in the histogram, there is a slight skew to the data. More states are towards the bottom of the distribution than towards the top (31/50 or 62% are below the average of 32.9%), but the majority are in the middle. 30 states (60%) are between 28% and 36%.
How Does Graduate or Professional Degree Attainment Compare by State?
On average, only 12.7% of a state’s residents have a graduate or professional degree. Most of the U.S. has a low proportion of the population who have completed postgraduate education, with the exception of the Northeast. The states with the highest percentage of residents who have a graduate or professional degree, ranging from 16.5% to 20%, are Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, Virginia, and New York. The states with the lowest percentage, ranging from 8.6% to 8.9%, are West Virginia, Arkansas, North Dakota, Nevada, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Similar to how the states with the lowest proportion of college graduates also tend to have the lowest household incomes, the states with the highest proportion of postgraduate degree holders tend to have the highest household incomes, again suggesting that the correlation between education level and income may help to explain the differences we see by state.
As you can see, most states have a low proportion of graduate and professional degree holders. 12 states have less than 10%. Another 30 states have less than 15%. That means 42 states (84%) have less than 15%. Only 8 states have between 15% and 20% of graduate and professional degree recipients. 20% is a pretty high percentage to have a postgraduate degree. That means on any 5 member team, you would expect 1 person to have a graduate or professional degree. At the other end of the range, you would only expect about 1 in 10 to have a graduate or professional degree.
How Does Doctorate Degree Attainment Compare by State?
A very small percentage of the U.S. population has completed a doctorate degree. Doctorate degrees are the top degrees in the academic hierarchy and include both research (or academic) degrees and applied (or professional) degrees.
Research/academic doctorates include:
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
- Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
- Doctor of Education (EdD)
- Doctor of Theology (ThD)
Applied/professional doctorates include:
- Doctor of Medicine (MD)
- Doctor of Optometry (OD)
- Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
- Juris Doctor (JD)
As you can see from the map, only 2 states stand out for having a high proportion of residents with a doctorate: Massachusetts at 2.83% and Maryland at 2.63%. The rest of the country ranges from 0.93% to 1.88%. It’s unclear why Massachusetts has such a high percentage of residents with doctorates, aside from just containing both Harvard and MIT as well as a thriving biotechnology industry. Maryland is a little easier to understand due to its proximity to Washington, D.C., where 4.23% of residents have a doctorate. Not only is it a political hotspot and thus an active area for lawyers, it is also home to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the FDA’s headquarters, and is well-known for its bio-research laboratories and aerospace/defense industry.
The histogram above really puts Massachusetts and Maryland into perspective with the rest of the U.S. Those 2 states are off on their own to the right, while the rest of the county is all clustered to the left, with a gap separating them. Fully 50% of the U.S. has less than 1.3% of residents with doctorates. 80% of states have less than 1.67%. This means that in a room with 100 people, you would expect about 1 person to have a doctorate in most of the country, but in Massachusetts and Maryland, you would expect 2-3 to have a doctorate. That’s not a huge difference in raw numbers, but it is 2 to 3 times the rate in the rest of the country and could be significant in some contexts.
In summary, these are the main findings:
- Most of the adult U.S. population has at least a high school diploma, though rates are lower in the South than in the North.
- About 1/3 of the population has at least a Bachelor’s degree, but this varies between about 20% and 45% by state. The Northeast and the West Coast tend to be more college-educated than the South.
- Graduate or professional degrees are more rare, with slightly above 1 in 10 Americans holding one on average. They are most prevalent in the Northeast, where rates are closer to 20%.
- Doctorate degrees are very rare, with only about 1-2 in 100 Americans holding one throughout most of the U.S. The only exceptions are in Massachusetts and Maryland, where rates are 2.83% and 2.63%, respectively.
Keep in mind that this data is for states as a whole. The data for individual cities is likely quite different.
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