Race, Geography and Degree Attainment

Residents of rural counties typically are much less likely to hold a college degree, new analysis finds, and urban and suburban areas often feature wide attainment gaps across racial lines.

June 27, 2019
 
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A new analysis of U.S. Census data at the county level shows that rural areas tend to have low college-degree attainment levels, and that urban and suburban areas often feature wide gaps across racial lines.

The report from the Center for American Progress was inspired in part by maps of the 2016 presidential election and by studies on "education deserts," or commuting zones that lack more than one broad-access postsecondary education option, said Colleen Campbell, director for postsecondary education at the center.

"The intention is to make people think about the bubbles they live in," she said.

Just under 40 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have earned an associate, bachelor's or graduate degree, according to the report. About 35 percent of white adults hold at least a bachelor's degree, compared to 18 percent of adults from underrepresented groups. And just 8 percent of bachelor's degree holders live in rural counties.

The center's analysis breaks down degree attainment in each of the nation's 3,220 counties, by using data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. An accompanying interactive map includes the locations of roughly 12,000 college campuses.

Fully 84 percent of the counties in the bottom 10 percent on degree attainment rates are mostly or completely rural, the group found. And just 16 percent of the counties in the top 10 percent are rural. Counties with low attainment rates are most heavily concentrated in the South, running from the borders of Oklahoma and Texas to the Atlantic Ocean.

Proximity to a college campus is a major driver of the rural attainment gap. Rural counties are home to 14 percent of the nation's campuses, the analysis found, even though these areas cover 97 percent of land area in the U.S.

"Furthermore, disparities exist between well-resourced flagships and lower-resourced regional and community colleges, which tend to be the only ones in rural areas," the report said.

Children in education deserts may not see postsecondary education as an option, making it unlikely that they will earn a college degree, and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

For example, Lee County in Arkansas is majority black and has a 13 percent overall degree attainment rate. It is home to twice as many residents without high school credentials as those with college degrees.

The nearest community college is 18 miles from the county seat of Marianna. The next closest option is a for-profit beauty school that is located 40 minutes away. And the closest in-state, public, four-year college is a four-hour round trip from Marianna.

Big Cities and College Towns

In contrast, 93 of the top 100 U.S. counties on degree attainment are either urban or suburban.

Yet high-attainment counties, particularly urban ones, also feature some of the nation's largest gaps between white adults and those from underrepresented groups. Urban areas with particularly yawning gaps include many of the nation's biggest cities, including New York City (56 percentage points), Denver (47), San Francisco (44), Boston (42), Atlanta (41), Los Angeles (35) and Chicago (32).

Washington, D.C., is a prime example of racial inequality in degree attainment, the report found. Three times as many white adult residents in the nation's capital hold a bachelor's degree or higher compared to black adults, a gap of 62 percentage points.

"Those without a degree have not shared in the economic boom that has occurred in the District over the past decade. This is in part due to the huge influx of college-educated young adults into the District, most of whom are white," the center said. "Washington also has extremely low access to affordable colleges, especially those that are open enrollment."

Large racial and ethnic gaps on degree attainment also exist in college towns, particularly those that include flagship public universities. Examples include counties that are home to the University of Virginia (50 percentage points), University of Colorado at Boulder (40), University of Texas at Austin (37) and the University of California, Berkeley (36).

"High attainment rates in these places are not driven by students, as most are not over the age of 25," the report said. "Rather, these colleges tend to be large employers, and faculty and staff very often are white bachelor's and graduate degree-holders."

Deep, systemic inequities have long pushed people of color out of postsecondary education, the analysis concluded. And both state and federal policy makers should better support educational options for adults, particularly those who dropped out of high school or college.

"State legislators really need to think about the geographies of their states. Do they want college to be accessible to everyone in their state?" said Campbell, who added that traditional colleges can't be the sole solution. "We need multiple pathways. A lot of this is about operating outside of higher education."

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