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In the U.S., people with higher levels of education tend to earn higher salaries. In fact, workers with bachelor’s degrees make about 68% more than those with only a high school diploma, according to median wage data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
As a result, the most educated cities in the U.S. are primed to produce more innovation and tax revenue. This attracts companies looking for educated workers, which in turn leads to an even higher concentration of highly educated individuals. So what are the most educated cities in the U.S.?
The cities topping our list do not just simply have the highest concentrations of college graduates; our ranking also considers high school dropout rates, graduate degree attainment rates, and gender and racial gaps in degree completion rates. Let’s take a look at some of the most educated cities the U.S. has to offer.
A Big-Picture Look at the U.S. Education System
The number of Americans with college degrees continues to grow. In 2021, half of American adults held a degree, up from 42% in 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
But higher education is not an even playing field. Several external factors create barriers to education access in the U.S., including cost and gender and racial disparities.
The Cost of Higher Education
Higher education costs continue to rise. Between the 2010-11 and 2021-22 academic years, the cost of tuition and fees increased by about 7% at public, four-year universities and 14% at private, nonprofit universities, according to NCES data.
Four-year institutions charge an average of $9,700 per year for in-state, public tuition and $38,800 per year for private tuition. The total cost of attendance—which factors in living expenses and grant and scholarship aid—for students living at home while in school reached $15,600 per year at public colleges and $43,900 at private, nonprofit universities.
College costs can disproportionately limit access for learners from lower socioeconomic groups, shaping education levels in cities across the country.
Educational Attainment by Gender
For this section, please note that until the 2021-22 academic year, NCES only collected data based on the gender binary. The terminology we use for this data is consistent with the terminology NCES used in its data collection.
Over the past 50 years, women have closed the gender gap with men—and then some—in terms of educational attainment.
NCES data shows that in 1972, more men graduated with a bachelor’s degree than women by a 12% gap. By 1982, women caught up, earning roughly the same number of degrees as men. And as of the 2021-22 academic year, women earned about 59% of all bachelor’s degrees conferred.
What accounts for the gap in educational attainment by sex? For one, men are more likely to drop out than women. In 2021, 6.1% of men aged 16 to 24 dropped out, compared with 4.2% of women.
Women are also more likely to enroll in college. While 43% of women aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in college in 2021, that number was just 33% for men.
Educational Attainment by Race and Ethnicity
Differences in educational attainment by race and ethnicity also impact our ranking of the most educated U.S. cities. Higher dropout rates and lower college enrollment rates mean Black and Hispanic Americans are less likely to hold a college degree.
NCES reports that in 2021, the dropout rate among white 16- to 24-year-olds was 4.1%, compared to 5.9% among Black students in the same age group and 7.8% of their Hispanic peers. Native Americans saw the highest dropout rate at 10.2%, and Asian students saw the lowest at just 2.1%
College enrollment rates also lagged for Hispanic and Native American students. While Black students enrolled at nearly the same rate as white students––37% and 38%, respectively––Hispanic students saw a 33% enrollment rate and Native American students enrolled at a 28% rate. Asian Americans enrolled in college at the highest rate: 60%.
Overall, white and Asian students earn bachelor’s and graduate degrees at higher rates than other racial groups. 2022 Census data reports the following rates of attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher by racial and ethnic identity:
- Asian: 32.6%
- Black: 17.1%
- Hispanic of any race: 14.5%
- Native American in combination with one or more other races: 21.8%
- Native American: 15.5%
- Non-Hispanic white: 26.1%
- White: 23.9%
The Most Educated Cities in the U.S.
What are the most educated cities in the U.S.? Rather than simply count degrees to determine the smartest cities in the U.S., we factor in dropout rates and racial disparities. We also reward cities with smaller gender gaps in education.
Below we explore each of the United States’ five most educated cities.
1. Arlington, Virginia
Across the river from Washington, D.C., Arlington is one of the smartest cities in the United States. Home to the Pentagon, Arlington boasts a sky-high bachelor’s completion rate of over 76% among adults 25 and older. Nearly 42% of Arlington residents hold a graduate degree.
However, Arlington also reports a substantial racial gap in bachelor’s degree attainment, with just 10.5% of non-white degree holders.
Home to major colleges like Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University, it’s no surprise that Atlanta is a highly educated city. In Georgia’s capital, nearly 60% of residents hold a bachelor’s degree, while over 25% have a graduate degree. Atlanta does report a wide racial gap in bachelor’s degree attainment: more than 20%.
3. Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., often ranks among the most educated cities in the U.S. Home to the federal government and a high concentration of federal employees who hold college degrees, D.C. sees high education attainment rates: 63% of adults 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, and nearly 38% hold a graduate degree.
But it’s not all rosy in the capital city: There’s a large racial gap in educational attainment. The percentage of white D.C. residents with a bachelor’s degree outstrips the overall rate by nearly 30%.
4. Austin, Texas
Texas’ state capital is more than just a fun place to live—it’s a well-educated city, to boot. Around 60% of adults ages 25 and older hold bachelor’s degrees in Austin, and approximately 22% hold graduate degrees. Austin’s white residents earn degrees at a disproportionately high rate compared to all races at just over 72%, but the city’s gender gap is nearly nonexistent.
5. Madison, Wisconsin
Madison, the capital city of Wisconsin, brings a lot to the table in terms of education. Home to University of Wisconsin Madison, this city has one of the country’s lowest high school dropout rates—just 4.56%—and more than a quarter of its residents hold graduate degrees. Madison also boasts the lowest racial gap in education on our top-five list: a 4.33% disparity when comparing degree completion rates among white students versus all students.
Education Outlook: The Future Of the U.S. Education System
What will the future look like when it comes to educated cities? NCES projects a 3% increase in college enrollment from 2017 to 2028—significantly slower than the enrollment increase rate from 2003 to 2017, which landed at 17%. Part-time students are expected to enroll at a faster rate than full-time students: 5% compared to 2%, respectively.
Enrollment Projections by Race and Ethnicity
While men and women are expected to continue enrolling at the same rate, NCES projections anticipate significant differences when it comes to race and ethnicity:
- Asian and Pacific Islander students should see a 2% increase in enrollment between 2017 and 2028.
- Enrollment of Black students should grow by 8%.
- Hispanic students will see the fastest growth at 14%.
- Enrollment of white students is expected to drop by 6% by 2028.
- Native Americans will see the starkest drop in enrollment rate at a projected 9%.
Projected Value of a Degree
In spite of the slowing pace of college enrollment growth, salary data continues to demonstrate the value of a degree. Higher levels of education attainment correlate with higher earnings and lower unemployment rates, according to the BLS.
Professionals with bachelor’s degrees earn significantly higher weekly earnings than those with only a high school diploma—nearly a 70% difference. A bachelor’s degree also translates into a lower unemployment rate: 2.2% for those with bachelor’s degrees, compared to 4% for those with only a high school diploma.
There are exceptions to the general trend that a college degree means a higher salary. Some fields that require a degree report low average wages, while many careers in the trades pay well without requiring a bachelor’s degree.
Top U.S. Education Trends
What trends are shaping education in the U.S.? A decline in college enrollment has signaled a shift in higher education, driven in part by rising costs. And many states have increased their investment in vocational education, which could change the most educated cities in the future. Let’s dive into some of the most prominent trends.
Declining Popularity of College
For years, the number of students enrolled in college has declined. Postsecondary enrollment dropped by 1.11 million between fall 2019 and fall 2022, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).
However, the 2022-23 academic year brought good news for higher education. The initial drop driven by the pandemic has stabilized, with the number of college students growing in fall 2022 and spring 2023. Between spring 2022 and spring 2023, the number of first-year college students grew by 9.2%, signaling the potential for new trends in education. Many colleges transitioned to offer online college options as well.
College enrollment varies by region, with Northeastern and Midwestern states seeing declines in undergraduate enrollment, while Western and Southern regions reported small increases in fall 2022.
College Affordability Concerns
The cost of college remains a critical issue, with student debt, tuition rates and financial aid representing a top trend in education. The Biden administration’s attempts to relieve student loan debt highlight the prominence of this trend.
While some states have pursued proposals to increase funding for public college systems and offer targeted grants to state residents, other states have not yet significantly invested in making college more affordable for students.
Rise in Technical and Vocational Schools
College costs are partly responsible for a rise in the popularity of technical and vocational schools. At two-year institutions, vocational programs were among the fastest growing from spring 2022 to spring 2023 in NSCRC data. NSCRC reported particularly strong growth for vocational programs related to transportation (11.8%), personal and culinary services (9.7%), science technicians (9.2%) and mechanics (8.2%).
More than half of governors promoted career and technical education as a vital component for workforce development, according to the National Governors Association.
The Bottom Line
From coast to coast, diverse cities across the U.S. boast highly educated populations. Yet while the rate of Americans pursuing college degrees has grown in the past decade, this growth has slowed, and disparities remain. Men continue to drop out of school at higher rates and enroll in college at slower rates than women. And white and Asian students earn bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than Black, Hispanic and Native American learners.
Race continues to be a factor in education, with the supreme court ruling against affirmative action earlier this year. As college costs rise and disparities worsen, alternative higher education options like vocational programs may continue growing in popularity.
To determine the most educated cities, Forbes Education gathered several education metrics for the 100 largest U.S. cities by population from the Census Bureau’s 2021 American Communities Survey.
These metrics included the high school dropout rate, which shows the percentage of adults age 18 and older without a high school diploma; the percentage of adults age 25 and older with some college, but no degree; the undergraduate college completion rate, which shows the percentage of adults age 25 and older without a bachelor’s degree or higher; and the percentage of adults age 25 and older with an advanced degree.
We also accounted for educational equity with two other lower-weighted metrics, the racial college completion gap, and the gender college completion gap. The racial gap was determined by subtracting the college completion rate for all students from the college completion rate for only white students, to show where non-white students faced the largest obstacles.
The gender gap was determined by taking the absolute value of the difference between male and female graduation rates in each city; this method allowed us to measure the gender gap in each city regardless of which gender it favored.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Education in the U.S.
How many years is college in the U.S.?
Most American colleges require four years for a bachelor’s degree. Many institutions also offer two-year associate degree programs. The median length of time to earn a bachelor’s degree was 52 months, or slightly over four years, according to NCES data.
How many colleges are in the U.S.?
There were 5,916 postsecondary Title IV institutions in the U.S. as of 2020, according to NCES data. Of those colleges, 1,892 were public institutions, 1,754 were private nonprofit institutions, and 2,270 were private for-profit institutions.