A woman on a laptop outdoors at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Students walk across the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jonathan Drake/Reuters

Urban places have the largest numbers of college graduates, but rural counties are starting to see more growth.

This is the fifth in series of posts that explore the myths and realities of America’s urban-rural divide. This week, we focus on the distribution of college graduates across urban and rural places. For an overview of the series and the data and methodology we use, see the first post in this series.

If there is one single factor that influences the social stability, economic success, and overall well-being of places, it is educational attainment.

Places with more highly educated people have lower rates of crimes, lower rates of obesity and smoking, better overall health and well-being, and higher incomes and levels of economic development. For those very reasons, education level is a key factor in our economic, political, and cultural divides. It was a central axis of the 2016 election, with places home to more highly-educated people voting overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, and those with less-educated residents in favor of Donald Trump. We measure educational attainment using the conventional metric of the share of the adult population (25 years and older) who hold at least a bachelor’s degree.

Across the nation, college graduates are overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas. Almost 90 percent of college grads live in urban counties, with more than 60 percent of them in large metros with over one million people. Just a bit more than one in ten college graduates reside in rural communities. But this is largely because urban areas simply have a larger population than rural areas. Still, studies show that differences in educational attainment account for roughly one-third of the difference in economic growth between counties in metro and non-metro areas, as fewer jobs are being created in areas that have less well-educated workforces.

Such a broad-brush painting of trends, however, tends to mask important differences in the geography of college grads across urban and rural communities.

Percent of College Grads by Type of County, 2010 to 2016

Type of County Percent 2010

Percent 2016

Percent Gain
Urban County
Large Metro 25.3% 28.6% 2.4%
Medium Metro 21.8% 23.6% 2.0%
Small Metro 19.3% 20.9% 1.7%
Rural County: Adjacent to a Metro
Large Rural 17.1% 18.7% 1.6%
Medium Rural 13.8% 15.1% 1.4%
Small Rural 13.7% 15.1% 1.4%
Rural County: Not Adjacent to a Metro
Large Rural 19.9% 21.5% 1.7%
Medium Rural 15.8% 17.0% 1.4%
Small Rural 16.2% 18.3% 1.8%

The first thing that jumps out: There is not as much variation in the geography of college grads across urban and rural place as you might think. While in counties within large and medium metros, a higher percentage of the workforce is college grads than in rural ones; in large rural counties that are not adjacent to a major metro, college grads make up a greater share of the population than they do in urban counties that are a part of a small metro. The only places that truly lag on their share of college grads are small and medium-size rural counties that are adjacent to metro areas.

On average, the number of college grads grew by 1.8 percent overall between 2010 and 2016. Urban counties in large metros had the greatest rate of gain, 2.4 percent, followed by urban counties in medium-sized urban areas with 2.0 percent. But, small rural counties that are not adjacent to metro areas were next with a 1.8 percent growth rate, and all other types of rural counties had a growth rate of 1.4 percent or better.

Indeed, eight of the ten counties that saw the largest increase in their share of college grads were rural counties: Wade Hampton (22.7 percent) and Denali, Alaska (11.0 percent); Borden County, Texas (17.4 percent); Ouray County, Colorado (13.2 percent); Broadwater County, Montana (12.1 percent); Loup County, Nebraska (11.9 percent); Owsley County, Kentucky (11.6 percent); and Lake County, South Dakota (11.1 percent).

Nearly 45 percent of rural counties (915 of 2,053 counties) experienced growth in the number of college grads at rates exceeding the national average of 1.8 percent. And 8 percent (165 counties) saw their percentage of college grads grow by more than 5 percent. Of 18 counties that experienced more than a 10 percent rise in number of college grads, 13 were rural counties.

The table above shows the share of each type of urban and rural county that ranks in the top 10 percent on the share of adults that hold a college degree. Urban counties in large metro areas account for the largest share of counties in the top 10 percent of job growth, nearly 44 percent. But next in line are the smallest and most remote type of rural places—small rural counties that are not adjacent to a metro area at 18 percent, even larger than urban counties in medium-size metro areas at 15 percent.

There is more variation in distribution of college grads within the various types of rural and urban counties than between them. While college grads make up 55 percent of the workforce in most leading urban counties (there is one urban county, Falls Church, Virginia, where the share of college grads is a staggering 80 percent), less than 10 percent of adults hold a college degree in the lowest-performing urban counties. By way of comparison, college grads make up a similar 55 percent in the leading rural counties and less than 5 percent or so in the lowest-performing rural counties.

There are 98 rural counties across America that rank among the top 10 percent on their share of college grads. These include places like Los Alamos, New Mexico, home to the Los Alamos Lab (with 64.6 percent, third highest of all US counties), and other less obvious ones like Pitkin County, Colorado (60.4 percent, America’s eighth highest), as well as San Miguel County and Ouray County, Colorado, both at around 55 percent. Every type of community across America, urban and rural, has some share of its counties that rank among the top ten percent on the share of college grads.

A similar pattern comes through when we consider the counties that rank in the bottom 10 percent on their share of college grads. While urban counties have an overall smaller share, each type of county, whether urban or rural, has some share among the bottom 10 percent.

When it comes to talent, the reality is far more complex and nuanced than the commonplace notion of talent-filled, highly-educated urban areas versus rural areas of unmitigated brain drain and outright economic despair. While it is true that large urban places have the largest numbers and greatest shares of college grads, there are many rural counties that punch far above their weight in their share of the college grads. These are mainly places that are home to knowledge institutions, like federal labs or universities, or significant arts and cultural scenes, or stunning natural amenities.

When it comes to higher education, there are winners and losers among all types of places across the urban and rural spectrum. America’s winner-take-all geography operates at every scale and across every type of place.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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