What does the education level of 25 to 34 year olds really mean?

About a week ago, The College Board released their latest status report in their college completion series.


The parts of the report that seemed to grab the most media attention were those related to a) comparing the US to other countries on the percent of 25 to 34 year olds who hold an associates degree or higher and b) comparing US states to one another on the same measure.

Newspapers across the country ran with this stuff and Twitter was buzzing with punditry on what these indicators meant about the quality of K-12 public schools in each state. Our public schools must be failing us if we’re only 24th on the education level of our younger adults – one Missouri pundit tweeted (related news story here).

The first thing that caught my eye was that Washington, DC was first in the rankings of percent of 25 to 34 year olds with an associates degree or higher.  Of course it is. Washington DC is a magnet for recent college graduates. Clearly, this particular indicator says as much about the employment options for a young, college educated workforce as it does about a state’s own education system. This indicator also tells us something about the education level and expectations of the previous generation – parents of these 25 to 34 year olds, whether in the same state or elsewhere. And, this indicator may also tell us something about the extent to which a state imports or exports college students.

So, I decided to play with some data…’cuz that’s what I like to do… just to see how these rankings might change if I tweaked them a bit.

I decided it might be fun to look at the differences in the rates of college educated adults – % of 25 to 34 year olds with a bachelors degree or higher – across states in three different ways:

  1. percent of 25 to 34 year old current adult residents who hold a BA or higher
  2. percent of 25 to 34 year old adult current residents who were born in the state who hold a BA or higher
  3. percent of 25 to 34 year old adults who were born in the state, whether they continue to reside there or not, who hold a BA or higher

It would seem to me that the second of these measures is most on target – the percent of the native population that holds a certain level of education. Needless to say, when I focus on the second measure, the rankings change somewhat. Here it is:

Table 1

Education Level (% BA or Higher) of the 25 to 34 Year Old Population by State

U.S. Census – American Community Survey 2006 to 2008

Data Source: Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010.

Washington DC which ranks 1st on resident college graduates drops to 24th on native college graduates. MA, NY and NJ which were 2, 5 & 4, are now 1, 2, 3. Virginia goes from 9th to 26th and Maryland goes from 6th to 15th when only natives are considered. This is likely a DC effect as well. NH also drops quite a bit. Wisconsin rises quite a bit. Overall, there are some pretty big changes here.

Here are a few scatterplots – ‘cuz nothin’ is more fun than a good scatterplot.

This one shows on the horizontal axis, the share of 25 to 34 year old residents who are natives (born there).  On the vertical axis is the % BA or higher for all current residents. There’s DC, way above the rest on the vertical axis and pretty far to the left on the horizontal – that is, not too many 25 to 34 year olds who live there, were born there. The native share is only lower in Nevada. But Nevada doesn’t seem to be importing college grads!

This one shows the relationship between the % BA or higher among all current residents (horizontal axis) and % BA or higher among native residents (born and live there). Clearly there’s a pretty strong relationship between the two. But, there is enough variation to really change some rankings. Mass is high either way.  The big movers are those identified above, like Maryland, Virginia and New Hampshire, which have much more educated resident young adult populations than native resident young adult populations.

This one puts the “native share” again on the horizontal axis. On the vertical axis is a measure of the difference in the education level of all current residents (25 to 34) and native current residents. It’s somewhat of a net “import” effect measure. How much more educated is the current resident population than the born and raised population? Now, this is net difference, including the fact that some individuals who were born and raised in a state might have left and become more educated. Big net importers here appear to be Maryland, Virginia and Vermont and New Hampshire (Vermont surprised me a bit here… since there isn’t a whole lot of industry to attract college grads, but Burlington does always make those “great places to live” lists). It might also be a small sample size issue with the Vermont data. At the other end of the picture are Nebraska and Nevada, which don’t appear to importing a more educated adult population. Strangely, all but Nebraska are in the positive zone on this measure (note that this measure does not have to be net-zero across states because between state migration is not the only type of migration occurring. International migration may also affect these differences. This may also reflect the fact that more educated individuals tend to be more mobile. Just pondering).

In this one, we have the “native share” again on the horizontal axis, and the difference between the education level of those born in the state – whether they stayed or not – and those who reside in the state. This is somewhat of a net “export” measure. In this case, it would appear that Wyoming is the big loser. So too are Nebraska and Wisconsin. This is the one interesting piece about Wyoming. In the rankings above, Wyoming doesn’t move much. It’s 47th in % BA for current residents and 48th for native residents. But, Wyoming does much better on the education level of those born in the state, whether they stay or not – which apparently they don’t if they have a BA or higher.

So what does all of this mean? Probably not much. These figures and additional analyses certainly tell a more nuanced story than the media buzz of last week. But, it’s hard to really link much of this back to the quality of states’ underlying elementary and secondary education systems. Far too many factors are in play here, and even tweaking this one factor – whether residents are native residents or not- has significant consequences for state rankings.

So much for attaching any simple, bold statement about [YOUR STATE HERE] to that huge, pull-out multi-color map in the College Board Report!

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