America’s Most (And Least) Educated States

More Americans today hold academic degrees than ever before. The percentage of U.S. adults who completed a four-year college degree has steadily increased over the past 75 years -- from 5.0% in 1940 to 30.6% in 2015, according to new data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The college attainment rate increased in 19 states in 2015. Only Iowa reported a statistically significant decline. Most states reported no change in the education levels of their population.

The likelihood of having attained a bachelor’s degree varies considerably by demographic and social characteristics such as age and sex as well as -- notably -- by geography. The college attainment rate ranges from 41.5% in Massachusetts to 19.6% in West Virginia.

States with well-educated populations tend to share certain socioeconomic characteristics. Because holding a bachelor’s degree grants access to a wider range of higher-paying jobs, states with the highest college attainment tend also to report relatively high incomes. Nationally, the typical college-educated worker earns $50,930 a year, about $14,000 more than the median wage for all U.S. workers with any education.

In the 10 most educated states, the typical household earns an annual income well above the national median of $55,775 a year. The opposite is the case in the 10 states with the lowest college attainment rates.

To identify America’s most and least educated states, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentages of adults who have completed at least a bachelor’s degree in each state from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey (ACS). The percentage of adults who have completed at least high school or its equivalent also come from the 2015 ACS. Median household income, health insurance coverage rates, employment by industry, food stamp recipiency, poverty rates, and income inequality also come from the 2015 ACS. Income inequality is measured by the Gini coefficient, which is measured on a scale from 0 to 1, with 0 representing perfect equality and 1 representing total inequality. The Gini is also published by U.S. Census Bureau. We also reviewed annual average unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2014 and 2015.

These are the most (and least) educated states in the country.

Most educated states:

  • 5. New Jersey
  • Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 37.6%
  • Pct. of adults with at least a high school diploma: 89.1%
  • 2015 median household income: $72,222 (4th highest)
  • Median earnings for bachelor degree holders: $60,935 (2nd highest)

In New Jersey, 37.6% of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, a larger share than the 30.6% national college attainment rate. College graduates are compensated particularly well in New Jersey. The typical adult with a bachelor’s degree in the state earns $60,935 annually, the second highest such figure of any state. College graduates likely comprise a large share of the New Jersey households earning more than $200,000 a year. The 10.9% of state households earnings such high incomes is the highest such share nationwide.

  • 4. Connecticut
  • Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 38.3%
  • Pct. of adults with at least a high school diploma: 90.2%
  • 2015 median household income: $71,346 (5th highest)
  • Median earnings for bachelor degree holders: $61,071 (the highest)

In Connecticut, 38.3% of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, the fourth highest college attainment rate nationwide. A college education goes a long way in Connecticut, where the typical adult with a bachelor’s degree earns $61,071 annually, the highest median earnings for college graduates of any state. College graduates likely account for the bulk of Connecticut households earnings more than $200,000 annually. The 10.3% of households earnings such high incomes is the second highest share in the country.

  • 3. Maryland
  • Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 38.8%
  • Pct. of adults with at least a high school diploma: 89.6%
  • 2015 median household income: $75,847 (the highest)
  • Median earnings for bachelor degree holders: $60,745 (3rd highest)

In Maryland, 38.8% of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, the third largest share in the country. The high level of educational attainment helps explain the state’s high median income. The typical Maryland household earns $75,847 a year, approximately $20,000 more than the typical American household’s income of $55,775. A large share of Maryland residents likely earn their high incomes in fields that require college education. For example, 15.5% of the state workforce is employed in a professional, scientific, or management occupation, the highest share nationwide.

  • 2. Colorado
  • Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 39.2%
  • Pct. of adults with at least a high school diploma: 91.2%
  • 2015 median household income: $63,909 (11th highest)
  • Median earnings for bachelor degree holders: $50,196 (17th highest)

In Colorado, 39.2% of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, the second largest share of any state. States with high college attainment rates tend to have strong high school attainment as well. In Colorado, 91.2% of adults have at least graduated from high school -- one of the larger such shares in the country. Both the high school and college attainments rates increased by about a percentage point last year. A greater share of adults with a college degree likely means more residents have access to high-paying jobs. The median household income in the state is $63,909, far higher than the $55,775 the typical American household earns a year.

  • 1. Massachusetts
  • Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 41.5%
  • Pct. of adults with at least a high school diploma: 90.2%
  • 2015 median household income: $70,628 (6th highest)
  • Median earnings for bachelor degree holders: $57,285 (4th highest)

Home to some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, Massachusetts is the only state in which more than two in five adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. Because of their high educational levels many Massachusetts residents likely qualify for high-paying jobs that tend to require college degrees. For example, 13.5% of the Massachusetts workforce is employed in a professional, scientific, or management occupation, the fourth highest share in the country. Some of those employees may belong to the 10.0% of Massachusetts households earning $200,000 and higher a year. Only two other states have a higher share of households earning as much.

Least educated states:

  • 5. Kentucky
  • Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 23.3%
  • Pct. of adults with at least a high school diploma: 85.1%
  • 2015 median household income: $45,215 (5th lowest)
  • Median earnings for bachelor degree holders: $45,058 (14th lowest)

The share of adults in Kentucky with a bachelor’s degree increased by 1.1 percentage points last year, more than in most other states. This improvement, however, was not enough to move the state out of the bottom five for college attainment. Most states with low educational attainment rates share certain socioeconomic characteristics, including low incomes and high poverty, and this is certainly the case in Kentucky as well. The state’s poverty rate of 18.5% is the fifth highest in the country, and the median household income of $45,215 a year in the state is the fifth lowest.

  • 4. Louisiana
  • Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 23.2%
  • Pct. of adults with at least a high school diploma: 84.6%
  • 2015 median household income: $45,727 (7th lowest)
  • Median earnings for bachelor degree holders: $46,367 (23rd lowest)

The latest Census reveals broad social and economic improvements across the nation. For example, the national poverty rate fell fell consecutively for the first time since the Census began collecting these data through the American Community Suvey in 2005. Poverty in Louisiana, on the other hand, did not decline meaningfully. Nearly 20% of people in the state live in poverty, roughly equal to 2014. Poverty creates a vicious circle. People living in poverty are less likely to pursue high education, which in turn would -- in all probability -- improve their incomes.

  • 3. Arkansas
  • Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 21.8%
  • Pct. of adults with at least a high school diploma: 85.4%
  • 2015 median household income: $41,995 (2nd lowest)
  • Median earnings for bachelor degree holders: $42,828 (11th lowest)

Arkansas has the third lowest college attainment rate in the country at just 21.8%, close to 9 percentage points below the national rate. As is often the case, the state’s relatively small share of adults with a college degree is reflected in its low median income. The typical Arkansas household earns just $41,995 a year, the second lowest figure of any state and about $14,000 less than the national median income. States with fewer high-skilled workers tend to have a high share of low-skilled jobs. In Arkansas, 13.8% are employed in retail -- an industry in which jobs do not typically require a college degree -- the highest share of any state.

  • 2. Mississippi
  • Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 20.8%
  • Pct. of adults with at least a high school diploma: 83.5%
  • 2015 median household income: $40,593 (the lowest)
  • Median earnings for bachelor degree holders: $39,960 (2nd lowest)

Only 20.8% of Mississippi’s adults have a bachelor’s degree, nearly 10 percentage points below the national college attainment rate of 30.6%. The state has a similarly low high school attainment rate, as just 83.5% of the state’s adults have a diploma. The state’s low college attainment rate may be at least in part due to the relatively small benefit it affords. On a national level, the typical college graduate earns $50,930 a year, or about $14,000 more than the typical American worker. In Mississippi, those with bachelor’s degrees earn less than $40,000 a year, or just $8,900 more than the typical Mississippi worker earnings, a smaller gap than in most states.

  • 50. West Virginia
  • Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 19.6%
  • Pct. of adults with at least a high school diploma: 86.0%
  • 2015 median household income: $42,019 (3rd lowest)
  • Median earnings for bachelor degree holders: $41,512 (6th lowest)

Fewer than 20% of adults in West Virginia have a college degree, effectively unchanged from the 2014 share and the lowest college attainment rate of any state in the country. Residents with less than a college degree are considerably more likely to earn lower incomes than more educated residents -- across states and within West Virginia. With the least educated workforce nationwide, the typical West Virginia worker earns $31,634 a year, and the typical household brings in $42,0219 annually -- each among the lowest income levels of any state.

For West Virginia residents, while college level qualifications certainly help ensure higher wages, the advantage is smaller than in other states. The median wage for workers with a bachelor’s degree is $41,512 a year, the sixth lowest such income of any state but still about $10,000 more than the typical worker.

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