New Interactive Map Shows Stark Gaps in College Attainment by Race and Geography

July 3rd, 2019

By Center For American Progress

Washington, D.C. —  the Center for American Progress released “Those Left Behind,” a new report and interactive map illustrating the troubling status of national college attainment rates—and gaps—for every county in the United States. The map captures credentials earned by adults at the associate degree level and above and includes locations of nearly 12,000 college campuses, representing one of the most comprehensive maps of institutions of higher education in the United States.

The report uses American Community Survey data aggregated from 2013 to 2017 to illustrate how college attainment varies by geography and race, noting that rural areas tend to show low attainment rates and that high attainment rates in urban areas mask stark gaps by race and ethnicity. The report highlights four areas that illustrate these disparities: Lee and Pulaski counties, Arkansas; Nye County, Nevada; Washington, D.C.; and Hialeah, Florida.

“A college education is still among the most important tools to achieve economic prosperity, but degrees are not distributed equally across the country,” said Colleen Campbell, director of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress and author of the report. “While a greater number of Americans have a college degree than ever before, more than 60 percent of adults still have not earned one. When we take stock of college attainment nationwide, we can no longer overlook the role of place in who has access to college and goes on to get a degree.”

Among the top-line place-based findings, the interactive map shows that degrees are held largely by those in urban and suburban areas:

  • Ninety-two percent of bachelor degree recipients live in urban/suburban areas.
  • Of the bottom 10 percent of counties in terms of attainment, 84 percent can be classified as mostly or completely rural.
  • Of the top 10 percent of counties in terms of attainment, just 16 percent are rural.
  • Rural counties are home to just 14 percent of the nation’s college campuses, despite covering 97 percent of U.S. land area.

Likewise, while it may seem like urban areas do not have an attainment problem, high-attainment counties are also home to some of the largest racial and ethnic attainment gaps in the country. The concentration of highly educated people obscures the low attainment rates within urban communities—in particular, for people of color, including black, Latinx, and Native Americans.

No one solution can address college access and attainment, especially recognizing that the returns of a college degree are not the same for all individuals. As such, the report provides recommendations for local, state, and federal policymakers to improve overall economic prosperity, encouraging approaches that include postsecondary and workforce-based reforms that would better support the Americans who have been left behind.

Click here to read “Those Left Behind: Gaps in College Attainment by Race and Geography” by Colleen Campbell.

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