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Image: Rural Economy & Population

Rural Education

Education is a key driver of economic prosperity for people and places and is associated with higher earnings and lower unemployment rates. Improving education may also be an effective economic development strategy for rural communities and regions. Counties with higher levels of educational attainment among the working-age population are less likely to be persistently poor or experience low employment rates. Much of rural America struggles to find effective ways to raise education and skill levels in places where low-wage labor markets have been persistent features of the economic landscape.

Educational Attainment in Rural America

Educational attainment varies across places and demographic groups, increasing to varying degrees over time in both nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) and metropolitan (metro) areas. In nonmetro areas, the high school graduation rate for adults age 25 and older increased from 76.5 percent in 2000 to 82.5 percent over 2006-10. Nonetheless, the nonmetro high school completion rate remains below the 85.5 percent completion rate achieved in metro areas. While more adults are attending and completing college, nonmetro areas lag behind metro areas. The share of adults with a bachelor's or postgraduate degrees grew by 2.4 percentage points to 17.5 percent in nonmetro areas, compared with a 3.6 percentage point increase to 30 percent in metro areas. The college completion gap partly reflects the concentration of high-skill jobs in metro areas.

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Education and Economic Outcomes

Earnings rise considerably with educational attainment. In nonmetro areas, the difference in median earnings between adult workers with a high school diploma and those without was $6,934 during 2006-10. Similarly, the earnings difference between a worker holding a bachelor's degree and those with some college but no more than an associate's degree was $10,368. The difference in median earnings between successive levels of educational attainment was higher in metro areas than nonmetro areas, reflecting higher returns to education in metro areas.

Median earnings for the employed population age 25 and older, by educational attainment, 2006-10
Educational attainmentMetropolitan areasNonmetropolitan areas
MedianIncremental differenceMedianIncremental difference
Less than a high school diploma $19,700 --- $18,338 ---
High school diploma or equivalent $28,028 $8,328 $25,272 $6,934
Some college or associate's degree $34,799 $6,771 $29,159 $3,887
Bachelor's degree $50,047 $15,248 $39,527 $10,368
Graduate or professional degree $65,618 $15,571 $50,858 $11,331
Note: Values are median earnings in the past 12 months in 2010 inflation-adjusted dollars.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2006-10.

Unemployment rates also remain lower for those with more educational attainment partly as a result of an increasing demand for more highly-skilled labor.  In 2011, the unemployment rate for nonmetro adults age 25 and older without a high school diploma was 13.1 percent. Unemployment rates were lowest for adults with a bachelor's degree or higher (3.4 percent) in nonmetro areas. Metro areas showed slightly higher unemployment rates than nonmetro areas during and after the most recent recession across all educational attainment categories.

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Low-Education Counties

To capture the wide geographic variation in rural educational attainment, ERS has defined low-education counties as those where at least 1 out of every 4 adults between 25 and 64 years of age had not completed high school. (Educational attainment data for all U.S. counties can be found here). In 2000, 622 low-education counties were identified—499 nonmetro and 123 metro counties. Nearly 9 out of 10 low-education counties were located in the South, including a majority of those with historically large shares of Blacks and Hispanics. In the West, low-education counties showed a similar concentration in areas with large ethnic minority populations.

More than half of all nonmetro low-education counties are persistently poor or have low employment rates. Key geographic concentrations of rural low-education counties closely track similar concentrations of persistent poverty and low employment from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to the Rio Grande Valley. Nearly half of the remaining nonmetro low-education counties-neither persistently poor nor with low employment-are dependent on manufacturing. The relative prosperity of these counties is due largely to factory jobs that provide less-educated workers with stable work at family-sustaining wages. The long term decline in manufacturing, however, may present a significant challenge to the future economic well-being of this group of low-education counties.

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Last updated: Friday, October 31, 2014

For more information contact: Alexander Marré