Education in America's midsize cities

In our previous post, we used federal data to look at what broadly defines America’s midsize cities. We’ll again be using the American Community Survey to consider a few education variables in the 441 cities with populations between 75,000 and 500,000 people.

Education levels by degree

Looking across all midsize cities, about 86 percent of adults 25 years and older have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. In comparison, 32 percent of adults report holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The Midwest has the highest overall percentage for both a high school degree (88 percent) and a bachelor’s degree (34 percent). But with over 17 million people residing in midsize cities, the West has the highest aggregate population and the most degree holders in absolute terms: 14 million have a high school degree; 5 million have a bachelor’s degree.

We previously noted that the smartest city is Cambridge, Massachusetts, where roughly 75 percent of the population over age 25 has a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, San Ramon, California, a suburb of San Francisco, has the highest percentage of adults with a high school degree (99 percent). Keep in mind that San Ramon also reports the lowest poverty rate of just 2 percent.

Percentage of the population 25 years and over versus educational attainment.

Education levels by gender

The difference in educational attainment between men and women appears to be negligible when comparing high school and college graduates. A larger proportion of women (86 percent) than men (85 percent) over age 25 have a high school degree. In contrast, a slightly larger proportion of men (32 percent) than women (31 percent) have completed a bachelor’s degree. The total population of adult women is greater than men, which means that the absolute number of women with a college degree is greater than men.

Education levels by race

Differences in educational attainment become starker when comparing degree holders across races. Whites have the highest rate of high school graduates (93 percent) compared to African Americans (87 percent), Asians (85 percent) and Hispanic or Latinos (21 percent). In contrast, Asians have the highest rate of college attainment (48 percent).

The city with the highest rate of whites with a bachelor’s degree is Silver Spring, Maryland (85 percent), north of Washington, D.C. The city with the highest rate of African Americans with a bachelor’s degree is Naperville, Illinois (60 percent), falling within the Chicago metropolitan area and the Illinois Technology and Research Corridor. The equivalent city for Hispanic or Latinos is The Woodlands, Texas (59 percent), a community near Houston. For Asians, it’s Atlanta, Georgia (87 percent).

Race Some high school High school grad Bachelor's degree
White 7% 93% 38%
Black 13% 87% 21%
Hispanic 31% 69% 17%
Asian 15% 85% 48%

Education levels by place of birth

In midsize cities, educational attainment varies by whether a person was born in the U.S. or abroad. These differences might be of particular interest in cities with high immigrant populations. About 91 percent of the population born in the U.S. has a high school degree compared to 68 percent of the foreign-born population. More of the native-born population also has a bachelor’s degree (33 percent) compared to the foreign-born population (27 percent).

Scatterplot shows average attainment rates for midsize cities aggregated at the state level.

Education, income and poverty

Education is an important determinant of earnings. Across these cities, median earnings increase as education level increases. The difference between the median salary for a high school grad and a non-high school grad is 30 percent, or $6,227. This gap further increases when comparing the difference between the median salary of a high school grad and a college grad, which is a 76 percent, or $20,447, difference. The largest income gap between someone with only a high school degree and someone with a bachelor’s degree is in The Woodlands, Texas, where a high school graduate’s median earnings are around $31,000, and a college graduate’s earnings are $95,000. This amounts to a $64,000 difference.

Men earned a higher income compared to women at each education level. The gender difference in annual median earnings for the population 25 years or older was nearly $10,000.

Unemployment rate by educational attainment from 2005 to 2014.

Education also appears to be related to unemployment and poverty rates. Unemployment tends to be lower as education increases. In 2014, the average unemployment rate for someone with a high school degree was around 8 percent, which is nearly double the average unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders.

Education Average poverty rate
Some high school 29%
High school graduate 17%
Some college or associate degree 12%
Bachelor's degree or higher 5%

A similar relationship appears to connect education levels with poverty rates. As education increases, poverty rates decrease. Across midsize cities, the average poverty rate for individuals with a high school degree is around 17 percent, compared to 5 percent for bachelor’s degree holders.

A need for greater analysis

MIP sees the education sphere as relating to really interesting policy questions. It’s a topic that we plan to come back to with more more in-depth analysis and careful consideration. In the meantime, we hope this post gives you an idea of some of the overarching trends related to education in America’s midsize cities.

Jacqueline Homann

Policy research director

Jacqueline Homann has worked at a number of international and federal institutions. She is a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and holds an M.A. in policy studies.