The pursuit of higher education is more common in America today than in previous generations. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 41% of Americans aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in a two- or four-year degree-granting institution, far more than the 25.5% enrolled in 1967.
As of last year, nearly 30% of all American adults 25 and older had attained at least a bachelor’s degree. Yet, in some cities, a far higher percentage of residents are college-educated. Boulder, Colorado, led the nation last year with 58.5% of adults having attained at least a bachelor’s degree, while the Lake Havasu City, Arizona, metro area had the lowest percentage of college-educated adults, at just 11.3%.
According to Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University, a combination of related factors affect the likelihood that college-educated adults will move to or stay in a particular city. Perhaps not surprisingly, primary among them is the presence of colleges and universities. At least one major academic institution was located in all of the most educated U.S. cities.
According to Noguera, many graduates choose to remain in their college’s city, adding to the numbers of college-educated adults. In addition, since “there are many highly educated people, employers who rely upon a more highly skilled and highly educated pool of employees are drawn to those areas.” This can both encourage recent local graduates to remain in the city, as well as encourage other well-educated people to move there.
As one might expect, cities with the highest college attainment rates also tend to have higher median household incomes. Household incomes in most of these cities were in line with the national median of $52,250 in 2013, and in several cases were far higher. The San Jose, California, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, metro areas had particularly wealthy residents, with median household incomes of $91,533 and $82,084, respectively. Earnings vary dramatically according to a person’s level of education. While a typical American adult with less than a high school diploma earned slightly more than $20,000 in 2013, a typical person with a bachelor’s degree earned more than $50,000.
In many cities, however, a high-paying job is by no means guaranteed to recent graduates. As Noguera explained, “the relationship between education and income is not linear. While people with more education generally earn higher wages than individuals with less, there are many exceptions to the pattern.” For instance, the median income for adults with a bachelor’s degree was lower than $40,000 in four of the 10 most-educated cities.
Noguera also pointed to other factors that help shape the relationship between education and income. “One factor influencing the relationship is the local economy and the types of jobs that are available. In the most prosperous cities — New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston — high-wage jobs are in the financial and high-tech sectors. Individuals with college degrees who are not able to find employment in those sectors will often have lower wages.”
According to a 2013 report from the Milken Institute, five of the 10 most educated metro areas had among the absolute highest shares of output from the technology sector in the nation. In fact, Corvallis, Oregon, had a greater high-tech GDP concentration than any other small city identified by the Milken Institute.
To identify the most-educated cities in America, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed U.S. metropolitan areas with the highest percentage of adults 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013. Educational attainment rates, median earnings by level of education, household median income, population estimates, and poverty data all came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey. Unemployment rates came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and are annual averages for 2013.
These are America's most educated cities:
10. Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.
• Bachelor’s degree or higher: 45.5% (tied-9th highest)
• Median household income: $53,492 (100th highest)
• Median earnings – bachelor’s degree: $43,007 (166th lowest)
• Poverty rate: 16.9% (164th highest)
More than 45% of adults living in the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area had attained at least a bachelor’s degree as of last year, tied for the 9th highest figure among all U.S. cities. By contrast, just under 30% of adults nationwide had done so. While most Americans with bachelor’s degrees earn considerably more than their less-educated peers, higher education does not guarantee higher wages in the Durham metro area. A typical Durham resident with a bachelor’s degree earned $43,007, lower than the national median of $50,050. Overall, however, the median household income in Durham was $53,492, in line with the national median. Like other well-educated cities, the area is home to several large academic institutions, including Duke University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
9. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Conn.
• Bachelor’s degree or higher: 45.5% (tied-9th highest)
• Median household income: $82,084 (2nd highest)
• Median earnings – bachelor’s degree: $67,061 (3rd highest)
• Poverty rate: 9.6% (21st lowest)
With a median household income of $82,084, Bridgeport metro area residents are among the nation’s wealthiest. Area residents were far more likely to be employed in the financial sector than adults across the nation, and were paid nearly three times as much as their peers nationwide. High incomes in the region are also likely due in large part to high rates of educational attainment. More than 45% of adults in the area had at least a bachelor’s degree, higher than the statewide rate of 37.2% and also that of every other metro area in the state. A typical area adult with a graduate or professional degree earned more than $90,000 in 2013, more than similarly educated residents in all but two other U.S. metro areas.
8. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif.
• Bachelor’s degree or higher: 46.7%
• Median household income: $91,533 (the highest)
• Median earnings – bachelor’s degree: $74,727 (2nd highest)
• Poverty rate: 10.5% (27th lowest)
As one of the nation’s high-tech and information hubs, it is not particularly surprising that San Jose metro area residents are well educated and well paid. Nearly 47% of adults in the area had attained at least a bachelor’s degree last year. A typical household in the area earned $91,533, the highest median household income among all U.S. cities. Residents with graduate degrees also led their peers nationwide, with median earnings of $102,307. A typical American with a graduate degree earned $65,565, by contrast. Many highly paid area residents are employed in the information sector, where wages are more than four-and-a-half times higher than information sector jobs nationwide. Area residents are also three times more likely to work in the industry than their country-wide peers.
7. Ames, Iowa
• Bachelor’s degree or higher: 48.2%
• Median household income: $50,279 (153rd highest)
• Median earnings – bachelor’s degree: $42,482 (155th lowest)
• Poverty rate: 23.5% (22nd highest)
The high proportion of college graduates in Ames is due in large part to the presence of Iowa State University, which is also one of the region’s largest employers. The university also explains the disproportionately high numbers of young people living in Ames. More than 22% of the local population is between 20 and 24 years old, versus less than 8% of the nation. Despite the area’s exceptionally high educational attainment rates, residents with bachelor’s degrees tend to earn less than their peers nationwide. A typical Ames resident with a bachelor’s degree earned $42,482 in 2013, versus the national median of more than $50,000.
6. Iowa City, Iowa
• Bachelor’s degree or higher: 48.6%
• Median household income: $52,220 (116th highest)
• Median earnings – bachelor’s degree: $38,807 (52nd lowest)
• Poverty rate: 15.6% (154th lowest)
Compared with other metro areas in Iowa, Iowa City had the highest educational attainment rate and was tied for the lowest unemployment rate, at 3.2% in September. Like most of the cities on this list, Iowa City is the site of a major research institution. More than 30,000 students attend the University of Iowa, and many of them will likely remain in the city after graduation. While attaining a college degree is frequently a reliable path to high wages, median earnings among Iowa City residents with bachelor’s degrees were quite low, at just $38,807. A typical resident with a high school diploma, on the other hand, earned $34,278, among the highest figures compared to similarly educated Americans.
5. Lawrence, Kan.
• Bachelor’s degree or higher: 50.4%
• Median household income: $52,150 (117th highest)
• Median earnings – bachelor’s degree: $39,913 (63rd lowest)
• Poverty rate: 17.1% (151st highest)
Lawrence was one of only five U.S. cities in which more than half of the adult population had attained at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013. Also, 95.5% had completed at least high school, the second-highest rate nationwide. The University of Kansas is located in the city and is likely an attraction for both employers and future well-educated residents. While Lawrence no doubt benefits from having a well-educated community, high incomes are not guaranteed. The median earnings for residents with bachelor’s degrees was just $39,913, one of the lower such figures nationwide.
4. Ithaca, N.Y.
• Bachelor’s degree or higher: 50.9%
• Median household income: $48,516 (177th highest)
• Median earnings – bachelor’s degree: $36,172 (17th lowest)
• Poverty rate: 20.3% (65th highest)
Like most well-educated cities, Ithaca has a large population of young people, many of whom attend Cornell University. Compared to the nation, the city had twice the proportion of 20-24 year old residents. The presence of a large research institution has a positive impact on the area’s economy. Ithaca residents were several times more likely to work in education and health services than their fellow Americans. Average wages in those sectors were also considerably higher than nationwide. Among graduates and households, however, median earnings were quite low. A typical household in Ithaca earned $48,516 last year, less than the national median. And while the nationwide median earnings for adults with a graduate degree was more than $65,000 last year, similarly educated Ithaca residents had median earnings of less than $47,000.
3. Corvallis, Ore.
• Bachelor’s degree or higher: 52.2%
• Median household income: $47,808 (188th lowest)
• Median earnings – bachelor’s degree: $36,211 (18th lowest)
• Poverty rate: 23.1% (23rd highest)
Corvallis is described by the area chamber of commerce as having a “college town atmosphere and an economy rooted in education, high-tech industries and healthcare.” The sentiment is largely due to the presence of Oregon State University, where nearly 25,000 students are currently enrolled. The city seems able to retain many graduates, as more than 52% of adults in the area had completed at least a bachelor’s degree last year. The job market is likely very competitive for college graduates, however, as median earnings were low for area adults with bachelor’s degrees. A typical college-educated adult earned just $36,211 last year, considerably lower than the national figure of $50,050.
2. Ann Arbor, Mich.
• Bachelor’s degree or higher: 53.5%
• Median household income: $59,660 (46th highest)
• Median earnings – bachelor’s degree: $46,829 (136th highest)
• Poverty rate: 16.7% (174th highest)
A typical household in Ann Arbor earned nearly $60,000 last year, well above the national median household income and the highest figure among all Michigan metro areas. The high incomes may be explained in part by high educational attainment rates, as median earnings for residents with graduate degrees were $72,207, among the highest nationwide. A typical adult with a bachelor’s degree, on the other hand, earned less than the national figure of $50,050. With nearly 44,000 students enrolled — including 15,427 graduate students — and thousands of staff, the University of Michigan is a major contributor to Ann Arbor’s community.
1. Boulder, Colo.
• Bachelor’s degree or higher: 58.5%
• Median household income: $71,604 (9th highest)
• Median earnings – bachelor’s degree: $44,060 (188th lowest)
• Poverty rate: 13.9% (94th lowest)
Almost 59% of adults living in Boulder had attained at least a bachelor’s degree as of 2013, the highest figure among all U.S. cities and nearly double the national rate of 29.6%. Area residents were also quite wealthy, with a typical household earning $71,604 in 2013, among the highest figures in the country. Boulder’s poverty rate of 13.9% was also lower than most cities on this list, as well as lower than the nation. Like nearly all well-educated cities, Boulder residents live in proximity to a major academic institution. Approximately 32,000 students were enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder last year.