The Economic Value of College Depends upon Where You Live
College graduates enjoy a substantial income premium over those with a high school degree. In New York State, the median income in 2019 for people aged 25 or older with a Bachelor’s degree was $62,699. The median income for high school graduates was only $33,491. For those with advanced degrees, the median was $81,041. But the income benefit associated with college depends on where you live. In some places, the difference in median annual incomes between college and high school graduates was more than $50,000; in others, it was less than $4,000.
Geographic Differences in Median Income
Nationally, the median personal income for those aged 25 or more in 2019 was $41,841. However, from the map, it is clear that most counties had median incomes that were below the nation. Because the nation’s population is concentrated in a relatively small number of large metropolitan areas with relatively high personal incomes, most counties are below the median.
In 2019, half of the nation’s population lived in 142 counties with relatively large populations – 5% of the total number in the United States. The average population aged 25 or older in these counties was 776,325. The average population aged 25 or older in the remaining counties was 36,794.
The same is true in New York. New York has many relatively sparsely populated counties with relatively low incomes, even though the state’s median personal income for those 25 years old or older, $45,479 in 2019, was significantly above the nation’s. More than half of the state’s population lives in six of the state’s 62 counties – Kings, Queens, New York, Nassau, Suffolk, and the Bronx.
The median income in New York State varied geographically, ranging from $31,920 to $67,770. Median incomes were highest in the New York Metropolitan area, except for Bronx County, the lowest in the state. Other metropolitan areas upstate also had relatively high incomes. Smaller rural counties like Delaware, Hamilton, Essex, and Allegany had the lowest.
Half the nation’s college-educated population lives in the 101 largest counties in the United States. Nationally, the Census Bureau reports data on 3,142 counties. In those counties, college graduates were more than 40% of the population aged 25 or older. College graduates were only 30% of the working-age population in the remaining smaller counties.
In New York State, more than half the college graduate working-age population lives in five counties (New York, Kings, Queens, Suffolk, and Nassau) out of 62 counties statewide.
Like the nation, most New York counties had smaller percentages of college graduates than the nation. Twenty of New York’s 61 counties had higher percentages of their residents aged 25 or older who had at least a Bachelor’s Degree than the national percentage – 32.1%. The New York counties with higher rates of college graduates were in metropolitan areas.
The differences in educational level were substantial – in 10 counties, less than 20% of residents aged 25 or older had degrees, while in eight counties, more than 40% were college graduates. Most counties with low percentages of residents with college degrees were sparsely populated, except for Bronx County in New York City.
The Relationship between Income and Education
For New York and nearby states, about two-thirds of the county-level variation in median income for residents aged 25 or more was associated with the percentage of people with Bachelor’s degrees or higher levels of attainment. County median incomes ranged from less than $20,000 to almost $70,000.
In New York, counties with high education and income levels were in metropolitan areas, while those with low levels were primarily small, rural counties.
Differences in Income for College and High School Graduates by County
In counties with high percentages of residents with Bachelor’s degrees, median incomes for both high school graduates and college graduates increased with increases in the percentage of residents with college degrees. For college graduates, the difference in median income between counties with high and low rates of college graduates was nearly $21,000 – a 46% difference.
For high school graduates, the difference in income was only $5,466. While high school graduates had higher incomes in places with large percentages of college graduates, the difference in incomes between counties with relatively small percentages of college graduates and those with high percentages was relatively small – 18%.
From the chart above, as the percentage of county residents with Bachelor’s degrees or more education increased, the gap between the incomes of those with high school and college educations increased. For the 10% of counties with the highest percentage of residents aged 25 or older with Bachelor’s degrees or more, the gap in incomes between college and high school graduates was $30,708 in 2019. For the lowest 10% of counties, the gap was only $15,220. In some counties in New York, the gap was much smaller – in Hamilton County, the difference was only $3,787, while in Schoharie County, it was $5,192.
Most counties nationally and in New York have lower percentages of college graduates than the nation, reflecting the concentration of people in a small number of relatively large metropolitan areas. The concentration of people with college degrees in a few large urban areas is even greater than that for the nation. Half the nation’s working-age population lives in 142 large counties, while half of college graduates live in 101 large counties.
From an economic perspective, counties with low percentages of college graduates offer relatively little to retain people who have college degrees. College graduate residents of counties with high percentages of college graduates typically have incomes almost 50% higher than those in counties with the lowest percentage of college graduates. Much of the difference in incomes reflects the unavailability of jobs in high-paying occupations that require college degrees. The gap is much smaller for residents with high school educations – only $5,400 annually.
The income differentials between those with higher and lower levels of education are durable. Even though the percentage of residents with college degrees has increased over the past decades, the demand for workers with few skills continues to be low. The COVID pandemic exacerbated the problem because it most strongly hit low-skilled occupations in leisure-related industries, such as dining, travel-related occupations, entertainment, and retail sales.
For policymakers seeking to increase opportunities in areas with relatively few highly educated residents, the small number of more educated residents is a barrier to the attraction of businesses that could offer more opportunities. This problem is most acute in rural areas with small populations.
At the individual level, the most direct approach to maximizing incomes requires young people to complete the highest levels of education they can attain, regardless of their families’ socio-economic background. Unfortunately, for communities with few college graduates, well-educated young people find relatively few opportunities to put their training to use and little economic incentive to stay.