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Geography and Getting a College Degree


Thursday, March 18, 2021
Graduation hat and diploma

Does geography play a role in how likely someone is to earn a four-year college degree? In a recent Regional Economist article, St. Louis Fed Economist Hannah Rubinton and Research Associate Maggie Isaacson explored whether where someone is born affects the decision to go to college.

“Measuring college attainment by birthplace—rather than where people happen to live now—shows how the socioeconomic environment in which one grows up impacts the decision to seek a college degree,” they wrote.

Eighth District vs. Rest of U.S.

Rubinton and Isaacson examined the attainment differences between those born in the states of the Eighth Federal Reserve DistrictAlthough the Eight District includes parts of six states, the authors define the District as including the entire states.—Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee—and those born in the rest of the U.S. They compared the attainment levels of bachelor’s degrees or higher in 1990 and 2018. (See figures below.)

Bachelor's Degree Attainment or Higher, 1990

SOURCES: American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau and author's calculations.

Bachelor's Degree Attainment or Higher, 2018

SOURCES: American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau and author's calculations.

Overall, the authors found that degree attainment was lower for those born in the Eighth District compared with attainment for those born outside the District. During the period, the proportion of those with at least a bachelor’s degree rose by about the same amount in the Eighth District and the rest of the country.The authors limited their sample to people between ages 25 and 30. For 1990, for example, they measured degree attainment for a cohort born between 1960 and 1965.

In 1990, white men and white women had the highest shares of people with college degrees, both inside and outside the Eighth District, the authors noted. From 1990 to 2018, both groups experienced an increased share in college attainment, though the gain was sharper for white women.

In 2018, white women in the District had a higher share of holding at least a bachelor’s degree than any other demographic group except white women born outside the District, the authors observed.

“White women born in the Eighth District were 4 percentage points less likely to obtain a college degree than those born outside the District,” they wrote.

In both years, degree attainment for Black men and women was below average in both the District and the rest of the country, according to the authors.

The gap in degree attainment between Black people and white people is narrower in the Eighth District than outside it, but this is because white people in the District had a lower level of college attainment rather than a higher college attainment for Black people, they explained.

Possible Reasons for the Degree Disparities

The authors noted that there are many reasons why degree attainment may vary for children born in different regions, such as variances in cultural influences and in parental income and education. Another reason may be geographic differences in access to and quality of education.

“These patterns have important implications for the economic future of children born in the Eighth District and businesses seeking a highly educated workforce,” they concluded.

Notes and References

  1. Although the Eight District includes parts of six states, the authors define the District as including the entire states.
  2. The authors limited their sample to people between ages 25 and 30. For 1990, for example, they measured degree attainment for a cohort born between 1960 and 1965.

Additional Resources

Posted In Labor  |  Tagged hannah rubintonmaggie isaacsoneducationeducational attainmentdegree attainmentgeography