Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Less Educated Counties are Falling Behind

The U.S. population is getting better educated. But only in some places and not in others. Among the nation's 3,138 counties, the 58 percent majority are becoming better educated. The remaining 42 percent are educationally stagnant—they have not experienced a statistically significant increase in educational attainment over the past decade, according to a Census Bureau analysis of five-year American Community Survey data from 2005–09 to 2015–19.  

Forty-two percent is a lot of counties—more than 1,000. The bad news doesn't stop there. A disproportionate share of the stagnant counties were the least educated to begin with. This means there is a growing gap between counties not only in educational attainment, but also in the economic opportunities that accrue to educated populations. 

To do its analysis, the Census Bureau divided counties into two educational attainment groups. The measure of educational attainment was the percentage of county residents aged 25 or older with a bachelor's degree in 2005–09. For all counties at the time, 18.7 percent of residents aged 25 or older had a bachelor's degree. One educational attainment group consisted of all counties that fell below this threshold. The other group was all counties above this threshold. Now for the analysis: among the counties that fell below this threshold in 2005–09, only 49.8 percent experienced an increase in educational attainment by 2015–19. Among the counties that were above this threshold in 2005–09, a much larger 78.6 percent experienced an increase in educational attainment during the next 10 years. 

This is not good news for stagnant counties. It means the socioeconomic gap between counties is growing, the rural-urban divide is widening, and struggling counties will find economic prosperity even more elusive. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only exacerbate these problems. Recently released Bureau of Labor Statistics projections of the labor force impact of the pandemic show jobs disappearing for less-educated Americans. The number of jobs available for those without a high school diploma is projected to drop 2.3 percent between 2019 and 2029 because of the pandemic, according to a New York Times analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Covid-impact projections. Pre-Covid, these jobs had been projected to grow. The number of jobs available to those with a high school diploma and no further education will inch up by only 0.1 percent in the decade ahead, far less growth than foreseen pre-Covid. At the other extreme, Covid will boost job growth for the better educated. For those with a bachelor's degree, jobs will increase 6.7 percent—a bit more than forecast pre-Covid. Similarly, the job market for people with a graduate degree will expand 9.7 percent during the decade, also above the pre-Covid forecast. 

All this means we need to prepare for more friction, more turmoil—political and otherwise—between educationally stagnant and educationally advancing counties as these trends unfold.

Source: Census Bureau, Bachelor's Degree Attainment in the United States: 2005 to 2019

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