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Human Capital in Rural America: A Look at Educational Attainment

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The messages we hear time and time again make one point clear: communities that hope to survive and thrive in today’s global marketplace will have to retain, attract and expand their pool of well-educated and skilled workers. Certainly, the current discussions on the need to invest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and knowledge/creative occupations is rooted in the belief that such workers will be the major conduits of economic growth and innovativeness in years to come. In future postings on AgChallenge2050, we’d like to explore the state of STEM and knowledge/creative workers in metro and nonmetro counties of the country.

In discussing human capital in rural America, we first want to take stock of the educational characteristics of adults 25 years of age and older living in the nation’s metro, small city and rural-based counties. (U.S. Census definitions: Metro counties are urban areas of 50,000+ residents and outlying counties economically tied to the central counties. Small city counties have an urban cluster between 10,000 and 49,999 persons. Rural counties have no city, town or urban cluster exceeding 10,000 people.)  

Figure 1 offers an educational profile of adults by metro status in two time periods—2000 and 2010. Educational Attainment

Here are some key observations:

  • Metro counties are magnets for the best educated adults. Metro-based adults with bachelor’s degrees or more now hover at the 30% mark, up from 26.4% in 2000.  In small city and rural counties, the proportion of adults with a baccalaureate education is 18.9% and 15.4%, respectively.
  • The number of adults with less than a high school education has plummeted from 25.5% to 18.9% in rural counties over the last decade.  More modest, but still important, declines have occurred in small city and metro counties.
  • More than one in four adults in all three geographic areas have some college education or associates/technical degrees.

Another important change over the past decade is that the number of adults with less than a high school education has decreased by more than 22% in rural counties, the biggest decline among the three county types. Rural counties have also seen a 17.6% gain in adults with some college education, surpasses the rates for small city and metro adults. Metro areas made the largest gains in the number of adults with four-year degrees or higher, but both small city and rural counties saw notable gains—23.9% and 22.9%—between 2000 and 2010.Percentage growth_decline

It is important to remember that nearly 166 million adults reside in U.S. metro counties, compared with 2 million in small city counties and 1.4 million in rural counties. So, higher rates of growth or decline are far easier to realize in smaller populated counties. Even so, positive advances in the number of adults with some college (+1.43 million) and baccalaureate degrees or more (+ 1.04 million) in small city and rural counties between 2000 and 2010 means these individuals have the opportunity to be active contributors to the social and economic vitality of their communities.

Bo Beaulieu Bo Beaulieu (
Director and Professor, Southern Rural Development Center, Missippi State University

View more posts by Bo Beaulieu

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.