Employment & Education

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Rural Education

This topic provides the latest data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and other Federal statistical sources on the educational attainment of rural (nonmetro) workers and counties and the relationship between educational attainment and economic indicators.

Education is closely related to the economic prosperity of rural people and places. However, an increasingly educated rural (nonmetro) America still lags urban (metro) areas in educational attainment. The educational attainment of people living in nonmetro areas has increased markedly over time, but has not kept pace with metro gains. There is a large and growing gap in college and postgraduate educational attainment between nonmetro and metro areas, even among young adults. Also, within nonmetro areas, educational attainment is unevenly distributed across racial and ethnic categories. Minority populations within nonmetro areas have lower average levels of educational attainment.

Educational attainment is strongly related to labor market outcomes in nonmetro areas. Median earnings increase with higher levels of educational attainment and the gap in metro-nonmetro median earnings also increases with educational attainment. Nonmetro workers with less than a high school diploma faced the highest unemployment rates and largest declines in median earnings during the recession period (2007-09) compared with those who had at least a high school diploma. After the official end of the recession in 2009, unemployment rates between educational attainment categories in nonmetro areas have started to converge.

Nonmetro areas with low levels of educational attainment have had higher poverty (see note on poverty definition) and unemployment rates. Nonmetro counties with the lowest levels of educational attainment have significantly higher poverty and child poverty rates (see Understanding the Geography of Growth in Rural Child Poverty, Amber Waves, July 2015). Although employment change has been similar in nonmetro counties with low educational attainment and all other nonmetro counties, unemployment rates remain significantly higher in nonmetro counties with low educational attainment.

Educational Attainment

The educational attainment of people living in nonmetro areas has increased markedly over time, but is still well below that of metro residents. In 1960, 60 percent of the nonmetro population ages 25 and over had not completed high school. By 2013—50 years later—that proportion had dropped to 15 percent. Over the same period, the proportion of nonmetro adults ages 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or more increased from 5 percent to 18 percent; in metro areas, this proportion stood at 32 percent in 2013. Spurred on in part by rising economic gains to college education, the proportion of nonmetro adults with a college degree or more increased by 3 percentage points between 2000 and 2013 and the proportion without a high school degree or equivalent, such as a GED, declined by 9 percentage points. For more on college education, see Rural Areas Lag Urban Areas in College Completion, Amber Waves, December 2014.

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A college completion gap persists for young adults, who are more likely to have completed high school than older cohorts. Between 2000 and 2013, the share of young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with bachelor’s degrees grew in metro areas from 29 percent to 35 percent; this was a larger increase than observed in nonmetro counties, where the college-educated proportion of young adults rose from 15 percent to 19 percent. A combination of factors could be responsible for the metro-nonmetro college completion gap. Nonmetro household income trails metro household income by roughly 20 to 25 percent (see Income topic page), making college relatively less affordable for families living in nonmetro areas. Geographic distance may add another cost to attending college for young people who grow up in nonmetro areas. Those who do complete college may decide to work in metro areas that offer higher wages and more jobs that fit their skill levels.

Minority populations in nonmetro areas have significantly lower levels of educational attainment. About a quarter of adults age 25 and over in the nonmetro black and native American/Alaskan native population, and 42 percent of nonmetro Hispanics, have not completed high school or obtained a GED. These figures are considerably higher than the figure for nonmetro non-Hispanic whites (12 percent). Many minority populations in nonmetro areas are concentrated in persistently poor counties and regions.

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The Geography of Low Educational Attainment

A note about the data source. The American Community Survey (ACS) was developed by the Census Bureau to replace the long form of the decennial census. The ACS uses a rolling sample of U.S. housing units (250,000 monthly) to provide basic population characteristics annually for areas with populations of at least 65,000 people. ACS accumulates samples over 3- and 5-year intervals to produce estimates for areas with smaller populations; only the 5-year average ACS provides coverage for all counties in the United States. The 2009-13 ACS is used here to examine educational attainment at the county level.

Although nonmetro areas have made gains in educational attainment over time, there is still wide geographic variation in educational attainment within nonmetro areas. The map below shows areas with low levels of educational attainment, defined here as counties where 20 percent or more of the working-age population (adults age 25 to 64) lacks a high school diploma or equivalent, using data from the 2008-12 American Community Survey. There are 465 such counties in the United States, and a majority of these—roughly 78 percent—are located in nonmetro areas. These nonmetro counties with low levels of educational attainment tend to be clustered in areas of high and persistent poverty, such as the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, and along the U.S.-Mexico border. See more on the Geography of Poverty.

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Educational Attainment and Poverty

A note about the poverty definition. The analysis found here uses the official poverty measure as estimated in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). The measure is based on self-reported household pre-tax income, adjusted for household size and, over time, increases in the cost of living. In 2013, the official poverty line was $23,624 for a family of four (two adults and two children). The official poverty measure does not take into account nonmonetary benefits, such as subsidized housing, food programs, and Medicare, or benefits from the Earned Income Tax Credit program.  

The correlation between low educational attainment and poverty rates is high, although it declined somewhat over the 2000s. For example, the correlation between the share of the working-age population without a high school diploma or equivalent and the poverty rate among nonmetro counties is high. In 2009-13, the average poverty rate for nonmetro counties with low education was about 8 percentage points higher than for all other nonmetro counties, and the average child poverty rate was about 11 percentage points higher. Nonmetro counties with low educational attainment have fared poorly on other economic indicators, too. Although there has been no discernible difference in job growth in the recovery period between nonmetro counties with low educational attainment and all other nonmetro counties, average unemployment rates in 2009-14 were 2 percentage points higher in nonmetro counties with low educational attainment than in all other nonmetro counties.

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Educational Attainment and Labor Market Outcomes

In both metro and nonmetro areas, education is associated with higher earnings. Economic theory suggests that education increases the productivity of workers and is a signal to potential employers of ability. Therefore, workers with more educational attainment are likely to earn more in the labor market. The table below shows median earnings for all adult earners age 25 and older in nonmetro and metro areas. The difference in median earnings for each successively higher level of educational attainment is also reported. For example, median earnings for nonmetro working adults with a high school diploma were $26,220 in 2013, which was $6,199 more than the median for nonmetro working adults without a high school diploma or equivalent.

The metro-nonmetro earnings gap increases by level of educational attainment. Research has shown that workers who migrate from nonmetro to metro areas are likely to increase both their wages and wage growth over time relative to earnings had they stayed in nonmetro areas. The right-most column of the table below reports the metro-nonmetro gap in median earnings for working adults age 25 and older in 2013. The metro-nonmetro gap in earnings is lowest ($146) for those with less than a high school diploma or equivalent and is largest ($16,103) for those with graduate or professional education. While metro areas have a wage advantage many nonmetro areas offer a lower cost of living and access to natural amenities.

Median earnings for the employed population age 25 and older, by educational attainment and metro/nonmetro status, 2013
Educational attainmentNonmetro areasMetro areasMetro-nonmetro earnings gap
Median earningsIncremental gainMedian earningsIncremental gain
All earners $30,220   $36,462   $6,242
Less than a high school diploma $20,021 --- $20,167 --- $146
High school diploma or equivalent $26,220 $6,199 $27,718 $7,551 $1,498
Some college or associate's degree $30,162 $3,942 $33,470 $5,752 $3,308
Bachelor's degree $40,253 $10,091 $50,740 $17,270 $10,487
Graduate/ professional degree $51,023 $10,770 $67,126 $16,386 $16,103
Notes: Earnings in the last 12 months for adults ages 25 and older with earnings. Counties were classified using the Office of Management and Budget's 2013 metropolitan area definitions. --- = nonapplicable.
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service using U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, 2013.

Among all nonmetro residents, unemployment rates remain much lower for those with more educational attainment, partly as a result of an increasing demand for more highly skilled labor. In 2010, the unemployment rate for nonmetro adults age 25 and older without a high school diploma peaked at 15 percent, compared with 4 percent for those with bachelor’s degrees and 3 percent for those with graduate degrees. Since then, nonmetro unemployment rates have declined across all educational attainment categories. During the recovery period, unemployment rates appear to be returning to pre-recession levels.

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Last updated: Tuesday, October 20, 2015

For more information contact: Alexander Marré

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